The Healing Power of Art

Using Art Media and the Creative Process to Heal Body and Soul

In times of stress, people often turn to the arts for a balm. It has been well documented that literature, music, performance and visual art can all help heal body and soul.

The dynamics of art’s multidimensional power to heal can be seen in the works of great artists.

Vincent Van Gogh produced his greatest works while confined in a mental institution. Frida Kahlo might never have survived her overwhelming physical pain without her art.

“It has a calming effect,” says Emily Popiel, who conducts art therapy classes at Boulder Community Health’s Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit. 

A board-certified art therapist, Emily is part of a trend in the mental health profession—and in popular culture—of using art media and the creative process to reduce stress, cope with difficulties and regulate emotions. 

Through daily art therapy, patients staying at BCH’s Behavioral Health Unit are able to have a more individual connection to themselves through their art. They learn about stress-reduction, self-regulation, healthy coping skills—and explore their thoughts in a non-intrusive way.  

“Even emotions and experiences that they're not ready to put words to,” Emily says. “After working on the art for 45 minutes, patients make connections themselves that are valuable to their recovery. When I ask, ‘what did the art help you with today?’ patients are able to identify something that was bothering them or that led them to their crisis.”

Rather than replace traditional talk therapy for people experiencing a major psychiatric event, art therapy assists in quickening recovery, preventing relapse and giving patients concrete tools they can use when they leave the hospital

“Patients sometimes don't realize they're learning coping mechanisms,” she says. Giving them something playful like art or music to focus on seems to increase satisfaction. 

“It’s fun and they’re happy to be doing something where they have control and can express a bit of themselves.

Dance for Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s class participants shuffle through the door, some with the help of canes and walkers, others struggling to walk.

At the end of class, they move with a new energy and freedom, much different than when they walked through the door.

This is the Dance for Parkinson’s Program {DANCE4PD) offered through Boulder’s 3rd Law Dance Theater, a contemporary/modern dance company named after Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion.

“People with PD work hard to move through a day,” says Lisa Johnston, Director of the Program and one of its instructors.

Their muscles are often sluggish and tight, she says. After a dance class they feel looser, stand taller and move with a confident grace they didn’t believe was possible. 

It is well recognized that dance is one of the best ways to combat the symptoms of PD—the second most common neurological disorder. 

“Moving to music takes them into another world for a moment where they forget some of the challenges,” Johnston says. “It’s a wonderful warm-up and compliment to the many medical appointments they face on a daily basis.”

Rather than using movement primarily as a therapeutic tool, “we use D4PD as a way for participants to explore their imaginations, connect the mind and body and build community and social engagement.”

Teachers incorporate ballet, tap, modern dance, and other dance forms to spark creativity through story and imagery while simultaneously working on flexibility, balance, strength and endurance.

Dance for PD® is part of a global network of more than 300 communities in 25 countries around the world.  

Born in Brooklyn, NY in 2001 with The Mark Morris Dance Group, they utilized the expertise of professional dancers rigorously trained to incorporate balance, sequencing, rhythm and creativity into managing chronic disease and mobility challenges. 

The Boulder Program was developed by former NYC Ballet dancer Viki Psihoyos, who brings decades of experience developing therapeutic exercises in a creative environment.

Dancing taps into a different part of the brain, says Psihoyos. “You’re not doing physical therapy exercises. You’re having fun experimenting and moving to the music.”



Can an attractive drawing or photograph reduce pain or anxiety?  Do patients with art in their environment heal faster?

More and more hospitals think so.

And they've put big money behind it, transforming what were once cold, sterile spaces into mini-museums and contemporary art destinations.

According to a report from Arts & Health Alliance, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, more than forty percent of health care facilities in the U.S. have arts programs, with permanent public art displays—such as paintings and murals—being the most prevalent.

“Visual art has a strong, positive physiological effect on the brain,” says Executive Director Leslie Faerstein. “If an art installation gets a patient out of his room, or paintings take a person’s mind off their pain and lowers their stress levels, the art isn’t just decorative anymore.”

Illustrating this trend, Arts & Health Alliance did a survey of 129 Veterans Medical Centers in 2013. More than half of them offered arts programming at patients' bedside and more than forty percent have rotating art exhibits, permanent art collections, commissioned paintings or sculptures.

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