As overthinking has worsened during pandemic and lockdowns, so this may have contributed to more people experiencing OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Art therapy can be helpful for people who have OCD – there’s great scope for creativity to play a part here.
Integral to OCD are what are known as intrusive thoughts. These might also be seen as unwelcome, and can be irrational. They can lead to obsessive, set or ritualistic patterns of behaviour: maybe an obsession with being clean and tidy, or only walking on one side of a pavement, or counting to 10 before opening a door. Art’s power to absorb the mind is central to its positive impact on so many people’s wellbeing. Focusing on painting or drawing can drive other thoughts away. So clearly this can be helpful specifically for people with OCD.
It’s important to note here that art therapy is a specific and distinct clinical practice, first seen in the UK sixty or seventy years ago. The British Association of Art Therapy or BAAT regulates practitioners in this country. It may well be that other, non-therapy uses of art for wellbeing could also help people with OCD, but this would be different.
So how else can art therapy help OCD? Many mental health issues seem to have roots in a need for control: a feeling of helplessness, a sense that life is out of control, and a need to counterbalance this by controlling what we can. Eating disorders can stem from this, as can OCD, although obviously everyone is different. One of the ways in which art therapy is thought to help OCD is by showing people they can control some elements of life, even in the midst of intrusive thoughts. But it can also be about letting go of the need to control.
Spontaneity and freedom can be encouraged by art. While people with OCD might get overwhelmed as they sink into obsessive thoughts, experimenting with art and going with the flow can open up a different perspective. One example I’ve heard quoted is not obsessing over a blot or error in your drawing but going on creating. This can be transferable: so that people don’t react so strongly in life either. Instead of obsession being their default position, they can become more flexible.
This reflects the importance art therapy places on the actual creating, rather than the art produced. While the artwork itself may turn out to be striking or beautiful, this is not the goal. It’s focusing on creativity, experimenting, using line, colour or form.
Expressing feelings creatively, maybe on paper, with apaintbrush or pencil, or through modelling, can also be therapeutic as an alternative to verbalising thoughts or fears. While art therapists use practical creativity during sessions, art also becomes a tool for people to use themselves at home, as a way to calm their anxiety or obsessive thoughts at other times.
Art therapy is usually seen as complementing other forms of treatment for OCD, rather than being the main focus. Sometimes it is used within ERP (Exposure & Response Prevention) or CBT. Much will depend on the person’s own situation and any root causes of their OCD. But art opens up new possibilities.
Do you have any experiences or thoughts you might like to share on this? It would be great if you would like to share on Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you.