Art Therapy as a Strategy for Self-Managing Chronic Pain

Chronic pain’s greatest burden is its chronicity: the day-in and day-out physical and emotional challenges that accompany constant discomfort, difficulties in the workplace, strained family relations and in some cases, financial problems. Respite from this vicious circle makes a tremendous difference in quality of life. Art therapy can provide this by distracting attention away from the physical symptoms, emotional strain and life challenges. My first experience with art therapy was many years back, working with pediatric cancer patients in Chicago. The art room was a safe haven for children in active chemo. As the children engaged in drawing and making clay figurines, their sadness lifted. I still believe that I learned more from those children than they did from me; it was a transformative experience.

A couple of small clinical trials using slightly different approaches have shown benefits using art therapy for adults living with various types of chronic pain, including back pain. In both cases the programs involved small groups of patients: one in a community art center in Dublin, Ireland (O’Neill & Moss, 2015), and the second, a hybrid online and in-person program that took place in California during the Covid-19 pandemic (Hass-Cohen, Bokoch et al., 2020). The program in Ireland lasted 12 weeks and was led by a professional art therapist. Sessions began with all members of the group contributing to a single painting, followed by music, meditation and finally work on solo efforts. Solo works gave visual expression to each individual’s pain experience, enabling participants to work through negative self-image, and find opportunities for joy in the present moment. Several described their chronic pain as an “invisible illness,” with the artworks providing emotional release for feelings they felt uncomfortable sharing outside of the group. Engaging in creative work also functioned to shift attention, temporarily relieving physical symptoms (O’Neill & Moss, 2015).

For the hybrid group, patients were given assignments to create either three or four drawings based on the following themes:

  1. Draw the problem
  2. Draw yourself
  3. Draw the internal and external resources that help with the problem
  4. Draw yourself as you see yourself now.

In addition to physical symptoms, researchers were interested in art therapy’s impact on depression, anger, and anxiety that frequently accompany chronic pain (Hass-Cohen, Bokoch et al., 2020). Both in-person and online participants found the program beneficial, indicating that working independently, albeit with some initial instruction, could be effective.

If you are interested in learning more about art therapy, the American Art Therapy Association is a good source of information and has an art therapy locator on its home page.


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