Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How Expressive Therapy Helps Those with Chronic Illness and/or Disability

“When illness tears your soul, art gives it back.” –Patricia Fennell

How does chronic illness and/or disability impact us psychologically?

Many individuals faced with chronic illness and/or disability begin the grieving process after an initial diagnosis, just as those who have experienced the loss of a loved one would. That's because there has been a tragic loss. These individuals have lost themselves or, at the very least, their former selves. There is grief for lifestyles or activities they once enjoyed that are no longer possible, there is grief for lost hopes and dreams, there is grief for loss of freedom or independence, and so much more. One of the most difficult things about the grieving process for those experiencing chronic illness and/or disability is the realization that, at any given moment, the individual can be flung headlong right back into stage one. A co-morbid diagnosis, a change in symptoms or abilities, a loss of health insurance or financial resources, a change in family dynamics or relationship loss, a change in living conditions, a declaration that a doctor has done all (s)he can do. All of these things can trigger a new loss for these individuals and send them reeling right back to square one.

The way in which an individual is impacted emotionally or psychologically depends largely on the personality, attitude, and coping mechanisms that person possesses. Additionally, the type of illness or disability, its severity, and the treatment involved contribute heavily. Complicating the impact even further is the person's present and previous circumstances (including finances and access to health care), whether (s)he has an adequate support system, and any community support programs available to the individual.

Though the impact of chronic illness and/or disability varies greatly from individual to individual, nearly everyone will experience a wide range of emotions. Some of these may include, but are not limited to: shock, fear, uncertainty, denial, disbelief, anxiety, sadness, depression, grief, anger, inadequacy, shame, guilt, and resentment. With a loss of independence and abilities, many will experience an identity crisis as they struggle to find their new place in the world. There may be feelings of uselessness, helplessness, and hopelessness as these individuals are forced to rely on others for self-care and other tasks that were once simple, were once a given, and were once taken for granted. Loss of power and control, and a feeling of burdening those around them, may lead to withdrawal and isolation.

What is expressive therapy?

While only relatively recently recognized as an accepted form of complementary medicine, there is evidence that expressive therapies were used as treatments in the earliest civilizations. Ancient Egyptians suffering from mental illness were encouraged to engage in visual art, as well as pursue interests in concerts and dance. In early Roman cultures, it was believed that poetry could ward off "terrors of the soul," the study of words could alleviate pain, and that music could dispel depression and promote overall wellness. These ancient civilizations were not alone. Evidence of expressive therapies used for health and wellness exist in early Hebrew, Asian, African, South American, and Native American cultures as well. 

One website defines expressive therapy as "the use of an art medium in the treatment, rehabilitation, education, and training of persons with physical, mental, and emotional disorders." This type of therapy can include art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, dance/movement therapy, poetry/bibliotherapy, several forms of play therapy, and multimodal therapy, which is an approach that focuses on several of these types of therapy at once. Each type of expressive therapy is designed to target different physical and emotional aspects of the whole person.

How can expressive therapy help?

Numerous studies published in well-respected journals have concluded that patients participating in expressive therapies (expressive writing has been of particular interest) have shown significantly better physical and psychological outcomes than patients who do not participate in these activities. One study in particular reported numerous positive outcomes resulting from participation in expressive writing, including fewer stress-related doctors' visits, improved lung and liver function, shorter hospital stays, and positive effects on employment, among others. This particular study theorizes that the expressive writing process may help a patient reorganize and restructure life events surrounding his/her illness/disability, resulting in a better cognitive ability to process the events and adapt to his/her changed life.

My take on this is that creative, expressive therapies are useful tools for channeling the emotions and stresses that come with living with chronic illness and/or disability. I have personal experience with an expressive writing program. I previously lived in a city with a large metro area containing many community resources. One of these was a nonprofit organization which was created to help those living with chronic or terminal illness, as well as their caregivers. One of the many programs they offered included a quarterly course which was taught by the state's poet laureate. The course was designed to get patients writing about the things most important in their lives, much of which centered around their health concerns. The writing assignments had general outlines but the content was not regulated and patients were free to write about whatever topic had their attention at the moment. I was able to attend two of these courses and left both sessions feeling as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was a profoundly cathartic experience for me.

How can you experience the benefits of expressive therapy?

Do some research or ask around to find out if there are expressive therapy programs in your area. If there aren't any community resources available to you, don't despair! When I moved to the area I now live in, I quickly discovered how limited my new community is. However, that's when I found my new life's course. I began tinkering around with some DIY craft projects I found online and, before I knew it, I was opening my Etsy shop and creating beautiful things for others. I am now able to practice art therapy on a daily basis from the comfort of my own home. I am able to explore emotions, channel stresses, and discover new coping mechanisms through my artwork. In addition, I am able to make a financial contribution (however small) to the household, I am discovering a new sense of purpose, and I am beginning to find myself again after a lengthy period in which I felt a complete lack of identity.

So, find out if a local craft supply store offers classes at a discounted rate for persons with disabilities or research DIY projects on the internet that are within your scope of abilities. In short, find an outlet that allows you to express your thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a positive, creative way. It may help you cope with your current circumstances, it may relieve feelings of uselessness or helplessness, it may help calm some of your stresses and, therefore, symptoms. Most importantly, it just may change your life as you know it!