Art therapy and the intersection between chronic illness and mental health


An excerpt from My Beautiful Detour: An Unthinkable Journey from Gutless to Grateful.

Managing chronic illness can leave a person susceptible to emotional and mental health issues that can further exacerbate their physical symptoms.  Post-traumatic stress disorder can often accompany managing a physical illness, and often is the illness that doctors and surgeons can’t see.  How do we find self-empowerment in the midst of both visible and invisible disability, regaining self-autonomy, and also establishing a connection to the outside world?

After surgery, or recovering from an illness, many individuals may develop symptoms of PTSD, leading to undeserved shame, anxiety, dissociation, and fears associated with past medical procedures.

What if as patients, we lack the words to identify what and how we are feeling? Often, words are often last to effectively express how we are feeling.  At first, traumatic sensations appear in flashes, glimpses, textures, physical sensations, physical illness, and mental health.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, “art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” But art therapy can also incorporate drama, dance, puppetry, poetry, expressive writing, and other creative modalities.  If you don’t consider yourself an “artist,” how do you know which one is “right for you?”

More importantly, how can you use your creativity, whether it be sewing, cooking, comedy, problem-solving or striking up conversations, to express the intersection between chronic illness and mental health?

Art therapies can create a bridge between our mind and body by using visual and mental imagery and establishing communication between our cerebral cortex and limbic system.  Medical professionals need to understand the full impact of illness, how it may lead to maladaptive coping,  and most importantly, how to break out of this cycle, using art therapies to express ourselves healthily for both our own sake, and to share our story with others.  Medical interventions can be invasive and traumatic, especially when dealing with them for a sustained period of time.  Creativity is an unpredictable (yet still in our control) means of “getting through” the mental and emotional aftermath of a physical illness.

Physical illness is how I first discovered the ability to create art.  I picked up a paintbrush because it was the only thing I could “hold on” to – in every sense. I created my first painting, “Singing Tree,” during one of the most difficult periods in my life.  In 2010, after a seemingly successful surgery, I took a trip to California, only to be air-evaced back to Yale Hospital in the middle of the night because my wound had burst and I had suddenly developed several fistulas.  I spent almost three months at Yale, again being unable to eat or drink,  as doctors wrapped their heads around healing this fistula and open wound.  At a time when hope was extremely sparse, I yearned for some outlet to express not only my agony, but the “me” that was laying dormant underneath the medical crisis – the “who I am” part of the patient – my vitality, ME.  I found my way to painting accidentally on the road to healing.  My mother went back to our house and gathered whatever art-related supplies she could find, running to an art store to grab some paints, brushes and scraps of felt on the way.  Armed with these, a pad of canvas paper, and some Yale toilet paper for added texture, I obsessively created every day.

Each morning before the doctors came in for rounds; I’d paint feverishly whatever abstraction came to mind and what evolved from my situation.  When I completed my pieces, I felt like I had not only gotten out my frustrations and worry, but also found a place of joy and gratitude.  I would put each canvas outside my hospital room, and soon the unit began to catch on, even taking patients by my room to see whatever I had created that day.  Now, I was sustaining my aliveness and inspiring others, which filled myself with unanticipated meaning and satisfaction.  Ironically, the darker the circumstances became, the more joyous my paintings seem today.  Every tree seems to be singing and dancing, although the tear-drops and lightning bolts are always streaked across the bold backgrounds.

Once I discovered painting, my world changed.  I had found a way to express things that were too painful, complicated, and overwhelming for words.  Suddenly, when the uncertainty around me seemed frighteningly unmanageable, the strokes of my paintbrush could soothe me as I created a peaceful world that my soul longed to rest in as a place of peaceful solace.  My passion could ignite instead of my anger and despair.  And slowly, the good feelings overwhelmed the bad because I could control the positive world portrayed on my canvases with what my subconscious chose to create.

Although medical circumstances may be ongoing for me, I am long past my bleak days at Yale.  With the amazing staff and support at the hospital, my wonderfully supportive family, my passion, and a paintbrush, I was able to keep my soul alive for that uncertain time in my life.

It’s been proven again and again the connection between the body and mind in an individual’s recovery. Even without a clear diagnosis, treatment plan, or logistical reason for hope, the patient has the power to rejuvenate through discovering their own resiliency.  The patient finds this inner resilience by simple exercises we take for granted – gratitude, cultivating hope, expressive therapies – all which serve to anchor them in an identity.  With a firm connection to the self, the human spirit can preserve itself through uncertain and testing circumstances.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how creative arts therapies can promote resilience emotionally, relieve stress, anxiety, and depression, encourage self-expression, and enhance independence after physical illness. As patients, the arts inspire connection with both ourselves and the outside world. They also help us better communicate with the medical professionals following our progress.

The ability to create helps form a partnership between patient and medical team, where the patient feels heard by others, and most importantly, by themselves.  When life changed overnight on the operating table, I could initiate changes myself, and paint the path I wanted to move forward on.

Amy Oestreicher is the author of  My Beautiful Detour: An Unthinkable Journey from Gutless to Grateful and can be reached at her self-titled site, Amy Oestreicher.

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