Lost in time
Art and wellbeing
Becoming totally absorbed in painting increases a sense of wellbeing, but there may be more to it than that writes Peter Hudson.
How painting makes me feel
My profession before retirement was as a counsellor/psychotherapist and so, having fairly recently taken up painting, it seemed writing about the connection between art and wellbeing would be right up my street and certainly on my palette!
I took up painting and attended an adult education class two years ago and quickly found it very rewarding as it was both interesting and absorbing. Comparing it to my daily meditation it was also soothing and relaxing, altogether a wonderfully creative and morale boosting activity. One aim of Buddhist meditation is to stay in the present moment. Time passes so quickly when I paint that it feels close to being a single present moment. So for me painting makes me feel better and increases my sense of wellbeing.
That was almost my conclusion on the subject: art increases wellbeing because you get lost in it and time stands still. However, I also found myself thinking back to thirty years ago when I was a member of an art therapy group where I painted feverishly most of the time. Many of my paintings then looked like crazy firework displays.
After finishing the painting, we would talk about it with the Therapist and each other, mainly to see what we ‘felt’ about having done the painting. I don’t remember much of the detail; but I do remember one thing. One week the Therapist, unusually, set us a theme and the theme was ‘Mother’. I sat for quite a while and then produced the following in a very short time virtually without thinking.
Asked what it represented I said, again without thinking, ‘my birth’! And how do you feel? ‘Alone’ I replied and burst into tears. This was a defining moment in my therapy and I became aware of the effects of my aloneness in a painful but ultimately healing way.
What does this have to do with wellbeing? Well, put very simplistically, a theory behind psychotherapy is that much mental illness and some physical illness is caused by difficult ‘stuff’ from our past being repressed because it is so painful, we cannot deal with it any other way. Thus, it goes into our subconscious mind and we forget all about it. But that doesn’t mean that it goes away. Again, simplistically, repression can potentially make us sad, mad, or bad, or in other words, depressed, crazy or criminal. The theory concludes that if the unconscious material can be made conscious with a supportive person/ therapist then the symptoms can be confronted, talked about and disappear.
Art therapy and wellbeing
Art therapy is thought to be a particularly good way to tap into the unconscious. So I did some research and was amazed to find that art therapy had been successfully used to increase wellbeing in a very wide range of condition and illnesses. Conditions it is known to help with include cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, child trauma, eating disorders, and schizophrenia. The list does not end there but I’ve mentioned enough to make the point.
The use of art together with various forms of talking therapy has been shown to be better than on its own.
Painting and the work of Alice Miller
One author worth reading is Alice Miller. Much of her career was spent as a classical psychoanalyst but she famously resigned her membership of the International Society of Psychoanalysis when she discovered through her patients that many of their mental and emotional health problems were a result of various forms of child abuse rather than innate drives and longings which could not be fulfilled. She herself discovered much of the crippling nature of her childhood by painting. She painted spontaneously, not in any academic style. “The repressed feelings of my childhood – the fear, despair, and utter loneliness – emerged in my pictures, and at first I was all alone with the task of working these feelings through. For at that point I didn’t know any painters with whom I would have been able to share my new-found knowledge of childhood, nor did I have any colleagues to whom I could have explained what was happening to me when I painted. I didn’t want to be given psychoanalytic interpretations, didn’t want to hear explanations offered in terms of Jungian symbols.”
Miller went on to find support via a ground-breaking therapy called Primal Therapy. She also wrote several books publicising and explaining the vast amounts of damage caused by all kinds of child abuse.
Back to the future?
So yes, art can be tremendously good for one’s wellbeing from simply relaxing you to being a significant part in the care plan for patients in a range of physical and mental health conditions.
Recently I visited an exhibition: ‘From Degas to Picasso: International Modern Masters’, and whilst enjoying the very varied exhibits, paintings and drawings, I noticed how long lived a significant majority of the artists was. Marc Chagall died at 100 years of age. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions!
For further information on the psychotherapeutic aspects of this topic try reading anything by Alice Miller. The two most relevant works might be ‘The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self. and ‘Pictures of a Childhood’ as they are written largely without too much psychotherapeutic language.
For now, I am just happy to paint and my painting has certainly increased my sense of wellbeing and maybe there’s some therapy going on as well!
Peter Hudson is a past Chair of the British Association of Social Functioning, qualified counsellor and psychotherapist. His career has encompassed listening training in international schools, counselling and psychotherapy in private practice, the state sector with the UK’s National Health Service and in schools both in the UK and overseas. He is a regular contributor to ITM on the subject of ‘Listening Skills’.
For more about Peter’s work see: https://consiliumeducation.com/peter-hudson/
All paintings from the collection of Peter Hudson