Lesley's pivotal role in the dissemination of expressive therapies practitioners has created a global movement toward widespread usage of these creative approaches to health and healing.
How does an Ethiopian refugee in Israel find her voice, manage the memories of the pain and fear of her tormentors, the anguish of leaving one’s home? Or a soldier cope with the acute memories of a brutal war? How could the feelings that make an autistic child lash out be tempered?
Creative expression -the use of art, music, dance, drama, expressive arts and writing - as a healing force has a history that extends to the Ancient Egyptians. The use of what Lesley professor Shaun McNiff describes as “art-based knowing,” or what is more commonly considered expressive or creative arts therapies took a more prominent role in current culture with the advent of psychiatry in the late 1800s/early 1900s, gaining significance throughout the 20th century. Its role in healing is now making a substantial impact as a healing force in mental, emotional and physical healing for thousands of medical facilities, schools and veteran’s groups worldwide.
Lesley University’s pivotal role in the dissemination of practitioners of the creative arts therapies has in turn created a global movement toward use of ever-more creative approaches to effective, documented treatments as wide ranging as early intervention and adolescent behavioral medicine, breast cancer, HIV, PTSD and dementia.
While as Dr. McNiff, one of the founders of Lesley University’s internationally recognized Expressive Therapies degree programs suggests, linear, statistical results-oriented language is not wholly applicable to creative healing structures, given the unique application of each treatment, illness and practitioner, increasingly there is clear usage-based evidence of its robust effect in current culture, crossing age and disabilities. Their success has been seen to produce effects for treatments of child abuse and trauma, for sleep disorders and depression, for people with physical and mental disabilities as well as improvements in concentration, anxiety and possibly suicide prevention. (1)
Lesley University’s Expressive Therapies program, one of very few degree programs at its inception, has, through education, encouraged and advanced the active practice of creative arts therapies in over  countries. Students specialize in art therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy, expressive arts therapy, or music therapy. In just over 40 years, this little understood mind/body healing practice has become an accomplished, accepted healing force worldwide. As Dr. McNiff notes, “The empirical evidence is staggering. We started something that has spawned a field.”
With increased usage and trial, therapies that rely on the creative arts like dance, visual art, music, and writing have been assimilated into facilities such as hospitals, social service organizations, schools and clinics in enormous and varied ways.
While Dr. McNiff, and Lesley’s Dr. Vivien Marcow-Speiser - who spearheaded the creation of Lesley’s Israel extension school – were among the few who envisioned the power of creative expression in healing, most academics agree that it was only with the advent of rigorous licensure requirements, effectively setting professional guidelines, as key to medical and cultural acceptance of the use of therapy as a treatment option. Today, with multiple associations and licensure guidelines to follow, creative therapies are offered at universities around the world and practiced at an unprecedented level.
“We – our alumni and students - are out there doing the work, watching its effects. We’ve been working with Perkins School for the Blind for decades. We’ve helped Boston bombing victims, soldiers coming back from the war, and our graduates are taking that skill and knowledge back out into the field,” says Dr. Michele Forinash, Director of the Doctoral Program and Division Director in Expressive Therapies at Lesley.
As the neuroscience behind this mind and body connection develops, practitioners point to the sheer act of engagement in a creative process, what Dr. Forinash calls “the act of doing it,” that enables the healing. Studies tracking brain changes during these engagements point to an alteration in brain functions, which may contribute to the relearning of key skills and mental, emotional, and physical healing.
Applications of some form of the expressive arts therapies are evident throughout various cultures, helping to provide relief in acute emotional and behavioral cases such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).PTSD is defined as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.”
The trauma that PTSD sufferers feel affect all aspect of their lives, from their job functions to personal relationships. Children who suffer can have difficulty in school and experience behavioral issues, isolation, and phobias.
In a recent study with PTSD sufferers, Joshua Smyth, PhD, at Pennsylvania State University, relates the need for and evidence of results with what he calls “alternative therapies” that provide access to sufferers’ experience without directly recalling these experiences verbally.
“Each of these approaches allows individuals with PTSD to experience and/or express their thoughts and feelings without necessarily having to verbalize the trauma, share this verbalizing with others, or directly confront the trauma, if they are not ready. Alternative therapies, in general, also focus on creating an environment in which the patient feels safe, and then providing an expressive medium that does not threaten that feeling of safety.”(2)
A number of non-traditional creative/expressive therapies have demonstrated at least preliminary effectiveness in reducing PTSD symptoms, reducing the severity of depression (which often accompanies PTSD), and/or improving quality of life. The documented impact of the creative arts therapies for symptoms of trauma and post- traumatic stress disorder have inspired two National Summits on arts and health issues in the military by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In a recent issue of Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Karen Baikie and Kay Wilhelm outline the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing on PTSD sufferers define the argument for Expressive Writing’s healing properties. While short term results indicate an increase in distress and negative mood, longer term results show improved citing short-term increases in distress, negative moods and physical symptoms. Longer term outcomes include improved immune system functioning, lower blood pressure, improved moods, liver and lung functions, as well as behavioral improvements which include reduced absenteeism, improved memory, higher grade point averages and less depressive symptoms (3).
Over the past decade, health psychologists have cautiously begun looking at how the arts might be used in a variety of ways to heal emotional injuries, increase understanding of oneself and others, develop a capacity for self-reflection, reduce symptoms, and alter behaviors and thinking patterns.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health, points to the healing process of music therapy, in particular, in successful treatments of anxiety, in control of chronic cancer pain. There is also evidence of the effectiveness of auditory stimulation, together with a strong suggestion, as a method of adequate pain control.
Among the highlights of the Journal piece, the writers point toward the role of music to calm neural activity in the brain. Citing a study by R.E. Krout called “Music listening to facilitate relaxation and promote wellness: (it) integrated aspects of our neurophysiological responses to music.” Krout suggests that music may go so far as to restore the effective functioning in the immune system partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus:
‘The activity levels of neurons in the central nucleus of the amygdala decrease in response to calming effects of music, there may be corresponding reductions in the signals being sent to other parts of the brain.”
More evidence hints at the arts therapies effectiveness to aid in physical healing and preventative treatments through management of stress. Krout cites a study of patients admitted to a coronary care unit with acute myocardial infarction in which the author attributes the relaxation imbued through music therapy as effective in reducing stress that significantly decreases debilitating heart disease.
Stress is a major factor in treatment of cancer. Women in one study described ongoing cancer-related difficulties such as fear, pain, sleeplessness, role loss, activity restriction, reduced self-confidence, and altered social relationships.
When subjects engaged in different types of visual art – working in textiles and card-making, collages, pottery, or in paint – the cancer patients were focused more on “positive life experiences” than on their condition. They felt greater self-worth as the experience as it set them at work toward a goal, and provided a social identity beyond that of being a “cancer patient.” In the very act of “doing” these women, overall, found a place of expression that, for women in the midst of chemotherapy, words could not provide.
Dr. Vivien Marcow-Speiser spearheaded Lesley University’s Netanya, Israel extension in the 1980’s.
An early collaborator with Dr. McNiff in the establishment of Lesley’s Cambridge graduate degree programs, her early work in dance therapy treatments in Israel convinced her of the relevance and effectiveness of this “act of doing” and self-expression. “It was clear that those who practiced these dance, music, and art therapies (the earliest of established treatments) began to witness the transformations. “The sense of ease, of expression, the palpable relief people received was undeniable.”
It was this hands-on experience that convinced her of the palpability of the program’s goals at a time when scholarship had little to stand behind it. “When we went out to do placements, no one did it. We the students became the innovators.”
The Israeli Extension program, while no longer in existence, left a lasting legacy behind for the country. In its 34 years (well over half the life of the country) the program was able to, in the words of Dr. Marcow-Speiser “influence the development of the creative arts therapy field in Israel, where almost half of the country's 5,000 creative arts therapists have been educated at Lesley.” Given the numbers of roughly 15,000 creative arts therapists in the USA to roughly 313,9 million people (2012), and 5,000 creative arts therapists to 7,908 million in Israel (2012), the number of therapists in Israel is really quite impressive.
Alumni of the program practice worldwide as therapeutic practitioners and scholars find increasingly new ways to enable healing in realms that were, 40 years ago, little understood. According to Dr. Forinash, “the students we’re graduating are leaders in their field.”
The Expressive Therapies field is thriving, as evidence for its effectiveness mounts and neuroscience gains a better understanding of the mind/body connection. “Our goal,” Dr. Forinash says, “is to provide treatment and care to as many people as we can help, through whatever methods allow us to reach them and aid them most effectively.”
Sources: 1. Mental Health America, 2012; 2. Arts & Healing, Creative, Artistic, and Expressive Therapies for PTSD; Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing ; 3. http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/11/5/338.full | http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-healing-arts/201203/trauma-informed-expressive-arts-therapy; 4. American Journal of Public Health, The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature
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