When psychology meets art

Amira Elhamy , Wednesday 27 Nov 2019

Amira Elhamy talks to art therapist Carol Hammal about the special features of this kind of therapy

When psychology meets art
When psychology meets art

What could be the most valuable gift that any human being has been granted? There could be several answers to this question; however, we would all agree that the human mind is the most valuable gift and one that gives the human species its uniqueness.

According to psychologists today, our minds are not merely a place where the flow of immediate experience is registered, but a huge repository of hidden depths, including beliefs, attitudes, motives, hopes, fears and much more.

With all our experiences, emotions, moods, struggles and daily challenges, our minds witness various experiences, some positive and some negative. It is the role of psychology to help our minds to take a deep breath and operate properly.  

Art therapy is a relatively new psychological field that focuses on resolving psychological disorders that the mind can experience using art materials. According to Carol Hammal, a member of the American Art Therapy Association, this sort of therapy is based on the concept of expressing ourselves artistically without necessarily having an artistic background. 

“The essence of art therapy is the idea that when we express ourselves visually, not only verbally, we are actually able to externalise our unconscious thoughts, and with this process we are also able to make our thoughts clear and conscious. The role of the art therapist is to help you make meanings out of your thoughts that get reflected in art material by analysing it, though without necessarily revealing these to the client. The analysis is used during the therapy along with conversations with the client during the sessions,” she said.

Hammal explained that art therapy can help us to get rid of our defences by slowly decreasing them. “We all have defence mechanisms that can be very useful in handling conflicts like denial, avoidance or isolation. Sometimes that can be very useful, but if we overuse them they can be harmful, and sometimes we might experience resistance due to stress or anxiety. Art therapy allows us to overcome these difficulties and connect more with ourselves,” she said.

Art therapy also plays a role in the diagnostic process, and it is used on the clinical level when two or three diagnoses are proposed for a certain case. It can play an important role along with the clinical presentation to set the final diagnosis. However, an art therapist cannot make diagnoses based only on the artwork of the client, and verbal conversations are also necessary.

Art therapy is like music therapy, drama therapy and dance therapy in that it has the advantage of being applicable in various settings and for different ages. It can be very useful for depression and anxiety, and it can be very useful for children, as children draw by default and use it as a means of communication. They don’t have the same resistance that adults have to drawing, Hammal said.  

She added that art therapy might be important when it comes to medical conditions. “I work with severe medical conditions; art therapy helps treat the mental conditions of patients who suffer from chronic pain or severe medical conditions like cancer. It allows the patient to express the difficulties they are experiencing, which may be disregarded as doctors usually focus on the medical side,” she said.

Art, in short, is treated as an outlet for human frustrations, with it being seen as a way of sublimating any negative thoughts we experience to turn them into more acceptable ones. For a client to draw something that is dark or upsetting can still be a way of helping to find expression. In letting out anger, for instance, it is better to hit a piece of clay and shape it with the hands than hit a wall. 

It is all about materialising frustration in an acceptable form, and this helps a lot with anger management, anxiety and any other negative emotions that people may experience. 


IN ART THERAPY: An art therapy room is set up in a similar way to a counseling room, except there is a chair and a table for drawing with selected art materials.

The session includes verbal processing and using the art materials for drawing. The therapist usually gives the client a task relevant to what the therapist wants to do with the client during the session. For example, in a specific session where family issues will be processed, the therapist may ask the client to draw his or her family. The therapist will then detect guiding features from the drawing, and the verbal conversation completes the diagnostic process.

If the therapist detects depression from the drawings, he or she will ask the client about his or her moods. In other words, the artistic part and the verbal conversation part complete each other, Hammal said.

Sometimes a client may want to draw something to express themselves and let out a feeling or a thought they might have. The therapist should never stop that from happening, as the client might have an urge to let out something that had happened before the session, and it could be very healthy for this to be dealt with directly. 

“By expressing ourselves with the guidance of a therapist, we will be able to reach the goals we want to reach in life by acting them out through art-making. This is because in art therapy we allow our thoughts to come out in a symbolic way, in other words in art. Scientifically speaking, we allow neurotransmitters in our brains to be activated that wouldn’t have been active without art therapy,” Hammal said. 

Art can have a soothing effect, but this is not necessarily the case in art therapy. Colouring can provoke anxiety in some people, and art therapy does not necessarily use colouring. It may be used in cases where the therapist wants to achieve a state of containment for the client; in other words, if the client is experiencing impulsive emotions that need to be contained, colouring can help, with the therapist drawing something and asking the client to colour it in. 

“If the client can contain his or her emotions by practices inside the art therapy room, with more practice he or she will be able to contain the emotions outside the therapy room as well,” Hammal said.

She added that art therapy should be practised only by qualified art therapists. “My advice is that each client must do research about any psychologist, psychiatrist, art therapist or coach that he or she plans to go to. The client has the complete right to ask about the certificates the therapist has obtained, as an unqualified art therapist can do more harm than good,” Hammal said.

“Art therapy makes us able to externalise our unconscious thoughts, but in many cases a client will not be ready for unconscious thoughts to pop up on the surface, and that is fine as some thoughts are better to stay on the unconscious level. A good therapist will know how to moderate this process, and what to reveal to the client and what not to speak about, and when to stop and when to continue, and so on. This means that the client must be extremely careful when choosing his or her therapist.”

 “In correct practice, the client comes as a closed book, and the role of the therapist is to help him or her to write this book – maybe changing the title or removing or adding pages during the session. Most importantly, the client must also leave the session as a closed book; the last thing we want is to let the client leave as an open book.” 

“Human beings have unique filters, and the subconscious is one of those filters, so it could cause damage to open up an issue with the client and then leave it open. It is only a certified and well-trained therapist who can make a closure before the client leaves the room, and this explains why many clients may come to us with damage caused by unqualified practitioners,” Hammal concluded.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: