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The Power of Art Therapy in Treating Eating Disorders

By: Samantha Bernstein, Art Therapist and Primary Therapist at The Renfrew Center of Old Greenwich

Posted on October 14, 2019

Patient Artwork: Anonymous, 19 years old, colored pencils on white paper

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art to enhance and better understand one's mental and emotional well-being. There are many other ways in which art therapy can be beneficial. According to the American Art Therapy Association: "Research in the field confirms that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to become more physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy and functional, resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, handle life adjustments, and achieve insight."

More specifically, it is often difficult for those suffering from an eating disorder to verbalize thoughts and feelings. The process of creating art and the artwork itself can act as an alternative language, helping us express the inexpressible. The artwork serves as a tool that assists one in expressing thoughts and feelings, when they are unable to put those thoughts into words and might otherwise go unexpressed. Art can also provide a window into a patient's internal world, allowing clinicians to witness and interpret their experiences with more clarity. Feelings of shame surrounding body image and eating habits can be particularly challenging to externalize and express.

An art therapist can select specific art directives to help patients explore sensitive issues as patients feel ready, moderating the art-making in a safe, measured and respectful way. Since the art is a concrete documentation of thoughts and feelings that one experiences during therapy, it is very useful in assessing progress in treatment and identifying areas of need. The art-making can provide a safe place to let others see inside the eating-disorder sufferer's world and become a source of healing.

Samantha Bernstein is the Creative Arts Therapist and Primary Therapist at The Renfrew Center of Old Greenwich, since February 2019. She is also an abstract painter and has an upcoming show in December! She lives in Stratford, CT, with her fiancé, Jaime, and their cat, Georgina.
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