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When Therapy Changes a Life
by Therapist Nancy R. Larsen, MSW, LCSW

There are many forms of art that can be used in therapy. Finger painting is one of the mediums that is fun and entertaining as clients explore their emotions through paint. While art does not always require a prompt, it can often serve as a means for helping clients see their progress in therapy.

One theme that can be used is before and after. Clients are asked to paint a picture of what their anxiety felt like before they began therapy. Most often they are experiencing a lot of distress. They often feel like something is wrong with them. They feel shame and/or embarrassment that they are unable to handle life’s challenges. They are struggling with anxious thoughts that do not make sense to them no matter how hard they try to organize it in their mind. Art allows clients to externalize their experiences.

The artwork displayed in this article (see below) is an example of a client that came to therapy struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Clients who struggle with OCD find themselves obsessing over intrusive, unwanted thoughts. The more they obsess over their thoughts, the more anxiety they feel. To decrease their anxiety, clients with OCD will perform compulsive behaviors. This mental process has often been described as a hamster on a hamster wheel. There is no end to the wheel; it just goes around and around. Exhausting!

This client was given the prompt before and after about her OCD. Her before painting is a scenic picture of a tree with a bird sitting on a branch. There is a black fence in front of the tree. On the upper left, you see a painted sun.

When asked to describe her painting, the client stated that she drew a tree because she loves trees. She explained that the tree represented her OCD thoughts. Then she pointed to the black fence that runs straight across the bottom of the painting. This represented her compulsions. The red bird sitting in the tree was the client.

She expressed that her compulsions kept her safe from her intrusive thoughts. If she stayed within the fence, she was fine. However, she admitted that the bird (her) was not happy in the tree but was too scared to fly away.

Finally, she mentioned that the sun represented hope. Hope that she could find a better way to live. Hope that would allow her to enjoy her life more fully without the distress caused by her OCD symptoms.

The client was then asked to paint a picture of what her OCD looked like after therapy. Interestingly, her after picture does not look much different. However, there are a few slight changes.

In this painting, she drew the same fence, but this time, the fence was purposely painted brown to show that although her compulsions were still present, they did not feel as confining as they had felt prior to therapy. Also, the fence was not as straight and rigid as it was in her first drawing.

The tree still represented her intrusive thoughts, however, it was not as big and as intricate as in her first painting, signifying that her intrusive thoughts were not as controlling or bothersome as they had been in the past.

One very noticeable difference in her second drawing was that the bird, which represented her, was no longer sitting in the tree. The bird was flying freely in this picture and when the client was asked why she did not draw a sun in her second painting as she had in her first, she paused and responded that there was no need for a sun because the bird now represented hope.

Looking at these two paintings, no one would assume that either represented any type of struggle. These paintings are not gruesome nor scary in any way. They are beautiful.

Much like these paintings, mental health disorders can be very difficult to detect and are often misunderstood. Sufferers appear very normal on the outside, but on the inside, they are experiencing a significant amount of anxiety. Like the bird represented here in the above paintings, people who suffer from a mental illness, such as OCD, desire to live a life free of anxiety.

While symptoms of mental illnesses cannot fully be eliminated, implementing skills learned in therapy can greatly increase a person’s quality of life as it has with this client. Getting help for your mental illness is key to living a fuller, richer life.


Client has given permission to share the pictures in this article.

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