Judith Kerrigan Ribbens


This is the first of a series on the creative arts and crafts as therapeutic methods of healing from stress, and either healing from , or at the very least helping to cope with, mental illness. If you’ve never thought of the arts as therapy, the idea of using one or more of them as a means of therapy is an old one. There is long ago evidence that Hippocrates used to prescribe music for some of his patients as an effective means of treating their emotional, physical and spiritual maladies. Cures of illness have been attributed to dances, such as the tarantella, and color has been used to soothe or stimulate by many cultures. Shamans dance and sing to bring healing to their tribes.

You may even have instinctively prescribed the arts for yourself as ‘medicine’. How many times has a song delighted your mind and heart? What were you feeling when you first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters? Or the 1812 Overture? Or I Love rock and Roll? What does a rainbow do for you? How does doodling help you cope during a boring staff meeting? How do you feel after a night of dancing to good ol’ rock and roll? How does retreating to your craft room or hobby ease your day after a week of stress at work?

I once got a call from a man I knew, a good ol’ boy from Texas, an engineer who had never seen an art show is his life. On my recommendation, he had gone to see the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in Dallas. He was literally choked up as he spoke to me. He said he
stood in the middle of the show and cried and “Ah wasn’t even ashamed of cryin’”. He had gone there not long after he realized his marriage was going to end, he was struggling to remain sober, and was facing other serious emotional issues, including sexual abuse from his grandmother. Standing amidst the swirling colors and shapes of O’Keeffe’s flowers and landscapes eased his tension and reached into his heart as nothing else had done.

This is a foray into the therapeutic value of the creative arts.What are these therapies? In the visual arts, there is a wide spectrum of possibilities: painting, drawing, sketching, cartooning, printmaking, pottery/ceramics, sculpture, woodworking, mask-making, doll-making, photography, mixed media/collage. The list is long and varied.

In music, there is the delight of just kicking back and listening to your favorites. And, there is also participation via the use of instruments. Pounding out tunes on a piano or tooting your own choice of horn and flute, beating your soul out on a drum—you name it, it’s satisfying. Vocalization of sounds—like humming, droning, oohing and aahing, groaning, squeeking, squealing, hissing, singing in a chorus or group, and singing alone—all have their place here. Have you ever wondered why so many people love to sing in the shower? Almost all creatures on earth vocalize in some way.

Dancing With The Stars is currently one of the most popular TV programs. Why? We all would love to dance. Sadly, there are so many  people whose upbringing restricted their movements through space to a very narrow range. Physical and occupational therapists work with movement to help those persons who have had restrictive injuries. Exercise and dance tapes, yoga, tai chi and other martial arts focus us on our place in space and control of our bodies, and succeed in helping our minds along with our bodies.

Movement therapists use both structured and free form movement to help people gain confidence after serious accidents or trauma. I once observed a movement therapist working with a group of firemen who had been traumatized and injured in a serious fire. She had found a long and wide piece of stretch cloth which she made into a circle. Eight men stood in the circle and took turns leaning far backward, relearning trust in their own movements and the support of their brother firemen, all of whom would need that when they had to risk their
lives again.

Drama therapy includes role-playing, simple “acting out”, performing playlets or portions of well-known plays, creating and acting in one’s own plays, dramatic readings, and carefully staged psychodrama. Here’s a great place to throw an all-out fit and get away with it. Or create a character, a new persona, a different way of acting in response to others.

The writing arts are powerful. Poetry has the ability to move people to tears. So also does storytelling. Did someone read stories to you as
a child? Where did your imagination take you then? Did you make up your own stories? Have you kept a journal, a diary? Do you have a
particular genre of books you love to read over and over? You’ve been doing your own therapy.

Finally, there is what I call Imagination Therapy. Guided imagery, meditation, and color therapy reach into our brains to initiate chemical changes which allow us to soothe ourselves and to cope with stress.What I’ve written here is just a quick overview of these arts therapies.
I’ll be adding more on each specific area along with a few suggestions on how you can do this for yourself. Let me know what your experience has been if you’ve used the arts as your own therapy. I love to hear and read of how people use the arts as a help in coping with their lives.

What is a creative arts therapist? There are lots of us. We may specialize, becoming a registered art therapist, a dance and movement therapist, a music therapist, or use psychodrama as a therapeutic tool. I’m lucky. I found a program, at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, where I learned to use all the arts as tools for helping people. In that program we were made aware, through our own creative process, of all
the mental, emotional, and spiritual pitfalls and delights of participation in the creative process.

We discovered that this process parallels the process of healing—the pain as well as the joy. Those of us who studied there became intimately acquainted with the steps to healing. I can watch someone in this process and know very well where their journey is taking them. And I walk it with them if they choose to allow that. Sometimes I think of it all as white magic.