A New Road To Healing
Erin Elizabeth Murphy shares her insights on creative arts therapy, which helps cope with anxiety and traumaBy Sumi Thomas
Chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy… we have all heard of these treatments for cancer. Often leaving its patients hopeless and sapped of energy, cancer therapy sounds daunting. But what if we told you art could heal beyond surgery or medication? What if we told you the beauty of art could pull apart the curtains of gloom? Erin Elizabeth Murphy, an art therapist based in the US, shares with us her eye-opening journey with children ailing from cancer.
A RECENT STUDY REVEALED THAT CANCER PATIENTS WHO ENGAGED IN CREATIVE ARTS THERAPY EXPERIENCE LESS DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY THAN THOSE WHO DID NOT.
The benefits of art therapy, particularly for cancer patients and their caregivers, are many. Art, Erin says, can provide a safe and contained space to explore one’s thoughts and feelings. She wishes more people were aware of this method of therapy. “There is a common misconception surrounding art therapy that for someone to benefit from it, they have to possess artistic traits or be really creative,” she says. Art therapy does not have one single definition; it encompasses a creative process that helps enhance one’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Art is cathartic, and that makes it one of the most effective methods of self-expression and communication. The realm of art therapy is constantly evolving, and Erin is excited to see the impact on her clients. Having worked in inpatient and outpatient psychiatry, Erin has seen lives change for the better.
Talking about her experience with kids, Erin gets emotional. “In a pediatric oncology setting, I incorporate a lot of play,” she explains. “Empowering the patients and providing them with a sense of control is imperative because it is something they lack. The experience of hospitalization can be traumatic for a young child.” When asked about the various methods used in therapy, Erin shares insights from her treasure trove of knowledge. Interventions, she says, are extremely situational. An art therapist makes use of imagery and metaphors to help people visualize their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. “Specific materials are also utilized depending on the person and the reason for therapy, as materials, can evoke different emotions,” she adds.
Speaking about the effectiveness of art therapy when compared with traditional counseling and psychotherapy, Erin talks about her thesis that explored the power of creative expression and its significance in the healing process. “With the ability to improve an individual’s health and wellbeing, a creative expression is indeed a powerful form of communication,” she says. The power of art is often underestimated. A recent study revealed that cancer patients who engage in creative art therapy experience less depression and anxiety than those who do not. The research further found that the result of such therapy was similar to that of yoga and acupuncture. Art is unconscious, and through a creative process, a deeper sense of awareness can be developed in one’s subconscious mind. “This awareness can alter negative thought patterns that arise due to illness,” says Erin. “Art-making offers a safe distance from emotional responses, offering time and space for reflection. The final product can operate as a visual bridge between thoughts and feelings surrounding the individual’s experience.”
Blending art into therapy helps lower one’s defenses and promotes deeper insight. Perceptions of health and the collective attitude towards illnesses can immensely impact a person’s ability to recover. In a society that is rather negligent of the importance of creativity in daily lives, Erin seems to have faith in its power to carry on. “I have hopes that art therapy will thrive. Not only are art therapists exploring further, but the very discussions around mental health have become more prevalent,” she says, hopes flickering in her eyes