Living With Chronic Pain

Let The Artistic Side Flow

Before one of my surgeries, a friend gave me a care package. A lavender scented candle. A CD of relaxing, soothing songs. Protein drinks. A lap cushion to write or read on. And coloring books with an assortment of crayons, felt tipped markers and colored pencils. I had no idea what to make of the last items. Coloring books for adults? This was just as the craze was starting to catch hold. Coloring beautiful designs to de-stress and relax. These were not my daughters coloring books.

When we were kids, art time was often the best part of school. Who didn’t enjoy coloring, drawing, painting, and cutting-and-pasting? It was fun and calming. Creating something all our own gave us a wonderful, euphoric feeling. It turns out that making art can be a powerful therapeutic tool for adults, too, especially in the treatment and management of pain.

Art therapy helps lower the perception of pain by shifting the focus off the painful stimulus. Not only as a distraction, but also as a valuable tool to use when we need to decompress and alter negative feelings, so the pain isn’t in control, we are. A study of patients admitted for surgery found that participating in art therapy for an average of 50 minutes a day significantly improved their moods, and lowered levels of pain and anxiety.

When consumed by pain we often feel out of control, our pain dictates what we can and cannot do. Engaging in art therapy helps us to reclaim ownership of our lives. We decide how we’ll spend our time, the feelings we’ll experience and the steps needed to create something unique. Art can provide a powerful form of self-expression as well as a creative outlet. And once done, a magnificent representation of the pain we conquered.

If you’re like me you’re shaking your head right about now, feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed at your skill set. I can’t draw. Seriously, even my stick figures are hard to define. You’re sure to lose if I’m the one who has to draw when playing Pictionary. It’s just not my forte. Thankfully art is a vast array of visual representations, not just drawing, and it truly is in the eye of the beholder. 

The dictionary defines art as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

I’m more inclined to take an empty room or blank wall and turn it into a place that evokes a special feeling. In my new office the first thing you see is a waiting room that was designed to welcome. Instead of the typical clinical entry, I wanted one that felt like you were sitting in my family room. From the comfortable couches and chairs, to the library of books, TV and game table- all can find something to do while waiting for care. I hope it shows from the very beginning my way of interacting with patients. 

Instead of a drawing I use words to turn an empty page into a post. 

These are my forms of art. 

But you don’t have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. In its formal setting a registered art therapist (ATR) or board-certified art therapist (ATR-BC) who has earned a master’s degree approved by the American Art Therapy Association, guides the creative process while exploring how it relates to your pain. Art therapy should not to be confused with attending community art classes. While both create art, art therapy involves working with a specialist to better understand and deal with its daily impact.

In one session it might mean focusing on making a piece of art that represents what your pain looks like on that particular day, and then discussing how it is connected to the different lines, shapes, and colors created. Processing art like this can help encourage open discussions on feelings and actions otherwise closed off. 

It doesn’t matter the type of art you choose. All kinds of artistic expression, including printmaking, mixed media, woodworking, and ceramics or revisiting something enjoyed in the past, or an art form never done before is encouraged.

Typical sessions are weekly and last 30 to 60 minutes. The length and number can change as needed. While sessions are often individual at first, they may expand into a group support setting, which offers a chance for people to share their experiences with others and realize they are not alone. You can find certified art therapists through the American Art Therapy Association. 

Not interested in formal art therapy?. Even coloring in a book 50 minutes a day has been shown to help. Coloring, it turns out, can have a great therapeutic impact on those suffering from many different types of physical pain, and can help control anxiety, and depression. Coloring is good for the mind and body. No wonder we loved it as kids. While coloring does not replace the need for other interventions, it offers a mental break and can help to exercise hands and arms in easy movements.

Regardless of artistic ability, art has been shown to have a positive impact on those living with chronic pain. According to Dr. Peter Abaci, a pain specialist out of California, “the act of drawing, sculpting and other forms of art can be a mirror that allows you to see inside yourself and recognize and release hidden emotions that may be contributing to your pain.”

Here are some ideas you can do at home:

The Mask

This project is particularly effective for those living with hidden disabilities.

What you need: A paper mask that covers from chin to hair line with eye holes; paint or markers

Task: Color the outside to represent the way you think others see you. Color the inside as you see yourself.

The Bridge

What you need: A large sheet of paper; paint or markers

Task: Think about what your life looks like now and draw what it’s like using colors, shapes or any details on one side of the paper. Next, at the other end of the paper, leaving room in the middle, draw what you see yourself doing in the future or what you’d like to bring into your life. Lastly, draw a bridge between the present and the future and put yourself on this bridge.

The Mandala

Throughout history, mandalas have been used to create spiritual energy, speed healing and assist in meditation.

What you need: Paper, pen or pencil, markers or paint

Task: Draw a large circle using a pen or pencil. Fill in the circle with whatever comes to mind. It can be images, shapes, patterns; it’s okay if it spills outside the circle or if the circle isn’t completely full.

Visual arts can be a valuable tool in conveying aspects of an illness that are often too difficult to verbalize. When used as a means of communication, these breathtaking glimpses to our inner selves have the potential to improve how we see our pain, our selves, our interactions with others, our limitations and our futures. We can redefine who we are as we work toward the adjustments and acceptance our pain requires. 

 As an “invisible illness,” chronic pain can often be isolating. Using art making to depict hardships honors those experiences and can provide a catalyst to new knowledge and understanding on the part of not just the one who suffers from it daily but family and friends as well. 

So pick up a pen or pencil, grab a coloring book or plan an actual project that’ll act as a visual journal of your progression to a better tomorrow.

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