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“It’s a Wonderful Life!” – Every parent’s response: “is it really?”

“It’s a Wonderful Life!” – Every parent’s response: “is it really?”

What does Family Systems teach about being Parent-Oriented?


Let me paint a fictional yet very real picture: 

“I can’t take it! This yelling is killing me,” Trish cried out to her husband in frustration.

Trish: 41 years old, married to Owen, mother of two boys (Jake, 9, and Sam, 14), and working part time at a Marketing firm – sat down with her head down. 

She went on, “I’m exhausted… and feel more tyrant than parent! I can’t take much more…”

So much for the classic Christmas exclamation (yes, I’m still in the Christmas/New Years reflective mode) we wish we could all shout from the rooftops: “It’s a wonderful life!” 

Trish’s internal dialogue: 

What an absolute battle! Shouldn’t swimming lessons be fun? Nevermind my lovely intentions for him to make some friends, something he is clearly struggling to do.

Our internal critics can be ruthless in their judgements: 

The tone you used was too intense! What sort of mother screams like this at her kids? Hopefully none of the neighbors heard that. It’s hopeless! I cannot stop this yelling. Am I just a bad mother?

It’s one of those moments when you have intrusive thoughts about how you wish you could escape all the commitments you have. You are trying to uphold an image of order and yet the cracks are forming and your will power is running dangerously low.

If this is you, breathe in and out deeply. Right now. Try it. It helps. Slowly breathe in and out again. Take your time. I’ll explain in a second. This is important.

There is hope.

There are new dance moves to learn! New songs you and your family can move to. 

There is hope.

Do you sense a little doubt rising up? If so, go ahead and acknowledge that part of you that is skeptical. Take a moment, and acknowledge that inner skeptic. Listen to what it’s saying. Makes sense. Change is difficult. We’ve gone down this road too many times. Hope often feels out of reach.


Well, as a therapist and fellow human (who is new to the parenting game), I want to encourage you and share some steps you can take to become that peaceful presence you long to be within your family.

Take the First Step.

I want to encourage you: walking up those stairs to confront your child, to investigate the brewing chaos, or to engage in the struggle to get your kid to swimming lessons is so important. Being a parent is a sacred duty. As much as I can through the medium of a blog, I want to say this: Well done! Parenting is so important.

Some of the biggest names in psychology and parenting – Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté – together wrote a book called Hold Onto Your Kids and they repeatedly highlight the importance of our children being attached or connected to us as their parents. Perhaps this seems obvious but, in fact, researchers are seeing a trend of children becoming increasingly more attached to their peers than their parents. This means our kids are getting their cues or primary validation from their friends over us, their parents. Do your kids lean towards being peer-oriented or parent-oriented? A helpful sign is who do they turn to when in crisis? Or this: when your child is freaking out at you it’s a sign of their safety with you. 

Whatever the answer may be, your involvement is critical. And that means walking up those stairs over and over again.

I think of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey doubts whether his life has made any difference in light of the chaotic forces of big business creeping in and widening the inequality gap. In a moment of despair George wishes he had never lived! The classic parental exclamation: “is anything I am doing making a difference!?” Spoiler warning. George Bailey gets his wish to see what his community would look like if he never lived…and what does he discover? His life, in fact, has positively impacted countless lives. This movie is a beautiful witness to the power of a life well lived. The takeaway? Our lives, our love, and each little decision we make has a significant impact in ways that, more often than not, we will never see.

Your attention, your love, your concern for your kids, even if it comes across not perfectly, is worthwhile, essential and life changing.

Take the Next Step.

So back to our main question: how do we end this seemingly endless screaming match and attain that wonderful life we all want?

Deep breath in. And breathe out slowly. 

Here’s an answer according to Family Systems research:

One of the best things you can do for your kid is to focus NOT on your kids but to focus on yourself.

What? This is a strange invitation indeed. 

Hal Runkl, a seasoned family therapist, puts it this way, “We all feel incredibly anxious about our kids, and their choices, and we don’t know what to do about it. We fret and worry about how our kids will turn out. Inevitably, we’re so focused on our kids that we don’t realize when this anxiety takes over—and we get reactive.” (Runkl, 2009, p. 9). 


Hal continues, “First, it’s a given that there are things in this world we can control and things we cannot control. Now ask yourself this question: How smart is it to focus your energy on something you can’t do anything about, something you cannot control? Answer: Not very. Follow-up question: Which category do your kids fall into? In other words, are your children something you can control or something you cannot control? Here’s an even tougher question: Even if you could control your kids, should you? Is that what parenting is all about? And what if it’s not the kids who are out of control?” (Runkl, 2009, p. 11). 

Compelling right? Take a moment to think about that paragraph. Not fully sold yet? That’s okay. Stay with me just a bit longer so I can paint a picture of what this sort of parenting might look like. 

So the natural next question to ask is: what does it look like to focus on ourselves as parents? 

Take A Different Step.

It means doing what I got you to do above.

First, breathe in. Breathe out. 

Then, acknowledge the parts of yourself that rose up (the inner skeptic we acknowledged earlier). 

And then finally, move towards your kids.

Hal Runkl puts it this way: calm down, grow up, get close.

This sort of parenting is less about mastering the available parenting techniques but harnessing what Edwin Friedman (another family therapist) calls a “non-anxious presence.” It’s less about skills to learn and more about managing our anxiety. It’s difficult but doable. And it works! 

The power of harnessing a non-anxious presence is that if change occurs in one part of the family system, it affects the entire system. When anxiety rises in one person, it instantly impacts the entire family system. Like certain house heating systems: if the temperature drops, instantly the heating system alters to adjust the temperature. Thus, as the parent, when one lowers their own anxiety (perhaps through our three steps – calm down, grow up, and get close) you will immediately impact the entire family. In fact, our heightened anxiety often creates the very outcomes it seeks to prevent (check out counterwill and Otto Rank for more on this).

This is why the first step of harnessing a non-anxious presence is breathing or getting calm. This aligns with new research that teaches us about mirror neurons which activate in those around us in response to our emotional state (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Our brains are beautifully programmed to be really good at mirroring, or “getting in tune” with those around us. So, as you manage your breathing in high intensity situations, it will impact those you are around. So, first: calm down. Breathe.

Think Things Through.

Some questions to ponder related to our first step: what situations with your children make you the most reactive? What is said that typically triggers you? What are you feeling at that moment? Have you ever remained calm in the midst of family chaos? How did that affect those around you? 

The second step – grow up – is about how we handle the anxiety that is inherent in our families. It’s about avoiding speedy responses (emotional reactivity), increasing our self-awareness, and taking time to really think. 

Can you, in the heat of the moment as you walk up the stairs in response to the apparent chaos brewing, acknowledge the sadness, anger, and anxiety in you that is rising up? 

Hal puts it this way, “the only way to retain a position of influence with our children is to regain a position of control over ourselves” (Runkl, 2009, p. 16). Part of growing up, and thus infusing peace into our families, is our ability to embrace the emotional intensity present, the painful words unleashed, and the immediate discomfort for long-term pay-off. This is the process of maturity: our sacred responsibility as parents. 

“I hate you!” “You’re no fun… I want to go out Friday night.” “I don’t know how to do this homework!”

Cue anxiety. Do you feel it in your shoulders? This anxiety leads to two usual responses: Scream or avoid! Instead, each time this anxiety rises up it is an opportunity for us to grow up. And this process of pausing, thinking, and becoming aware of our own emotions, gives us enough space to think and respond from a non-anxious position… or as close as we can get to it.

So, the second step is to grow up: embrace your own anxiety, name the thoughts and emotions that come up, and take a moment to think.

I’ll keep the third step simple. The final step is to get close, which simply means remaining connected. From this place of calm move towards your kids. 

The Take Home Message. 

Let’s put this all together:

Your kids are fighting upstairs. Your heart rate starts to increase.. Angry thoughts start to arrive: “I’ve got dinner to make…I just put out five different fires today and now this kid is at it again!” These intrusive thoughts and more flood your brain. 

Here is what you need to do.

Walk upstairs… slow your pace… (unless danger is truly on the table… but it probably isn’t)…. Breathe in and out… attempt to slow your heart rate… even a little bit. Become aware of the part of you that is angry… where do you experience it? What is its job for you? Then, enter the room…

In conclusion, peace enters our families not in the way we expect, not through focusing on our kids – something we cannot or shouldn’t control – but through focusing on ourselves. Calming down, growing up, and getting close.

 

References

Neufeld, G., & Maté, G. (2004). Hold On to Your Kids: why parents need to matter more than peers. Vintage Canada. 

Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 27, 169-192.

Runkel, H. E. (2009). Screamfree parenting: The revolutionary approach to raising your kids by keeping your cool. Broadway. 

Parenting a Young Adult

Parenting a Young Adult

Parenting your Chronically-Ill Young Adult

Becoming an adult is a challenge these days. It’s even more challenging if you have chronic physical or mental illness, pain and/or disability. And it is equally challenging when parenting one of those kiddos. Here are some suggestions about what tends to work, and what tends not to work – although, of course, every child is different, and every parent-child relationship is different – so, take these as suggestions only and use what works for you.

Separation Anxiety

By separation anxiety, I mean yours! It is normal for young adults to become more and more autonomous as they separate from their family of upbringing and learn to stand on their own feet. This can be very anxiety-provoking when you are acutely aware of their struggles. Maybe you know that they have extreme anxiety around dealing with paperwork or making telephone calls. You may wonder, “how are they going to manage in their own place?” But hovering and fussing around isn’t helping them or you. Take a breath, do a guided meditation, and learn to be more patient than you ever thought possible.

If you have a young adult who sometimes goes ‘quiet’ and you have concerns about self-harm, it can be a good idea to have the name and number of a partner, friend or coworker who you can contact to check on how they’re doing. However, this must only be on rare occasions. Don’t use them as a way to deal with your anxieties.

They’re Still Here!

If your young adult is still living at home because of their health, and you are both happy about that, then there is no problem. If either of you are less than enthusiastic about it, then it’s time to give them their own space as much as possible, set boundaries and ground rules that work for everyone, and negotiate for shared time rather than assuming that they want to be around you 24/7. It may also be time for them to assume some of the household duties (to the extent that their health allows) so that they are building transferrable skills, and learning that being an adult comes with responsibilities.

Mind Your Own Business!

Privacy is something which everyone deserves. Our children get less privacy when they are young because that is tempered by the need to have some level of control over their lives to ensure that they are healthy and safe. However, adults have the right to privacy, period. Your kid’s computer, cellphone, finances, diary … all off-limits. If you have concerns, talk to them – it’s the grown-up thing to do and they should be able to expect you to model what being an adult means. They don’t need your permission to go out, but they may need your help with transportation. If you’re willing to do that, you’ll meet their friends and be part of their life way more than if they get grilled every time they leave the house.

What They Need versus What You Want to Do

Often we think we really know our kids and their needs – and we probably do, more than anyone in the world … except them. If we insist on helping the way we want instead of what they need, then we prevent them from growing. For example, if they tell you that they can handle taking the bus to work this week, and don’t need a lift – you may not be sure they can do it. But what’s the worst that can happen? They try it once and then need assistance. But what’s the best that can happen? Maybe they make progress and conquer a new skill! Don’t second guess them. Yes, it’s hard watching them struggle a bit. But that, as the kids say, is a you problem. Don’t make it theirs.

Work together with your kids to make contingency plans that help keep their lives on-track. If they take prescriptions, and you know they have difficulty filling them – keep a few days’ supply so that they won’t ever run out completely. If they’re travelling, and you worry that their ADHD will cause them to lose their passport – take a scanned copy backed up to the Cloud and make sure you both have a photo of it on your phones. There are creative solutions to most problems. Oh, and the occasional home-made mac and cheese never hurts, either!

Parenting Without Judgement!

Make parenting a no-judgement zone. If they get into trouble, they won’t ask for help if they know they are going to hear ‘I told you so’. Minimize issues and let them know that adult life is hard, but manageable, and most things can be fixed. Be ready to help when it’s needed, and be prepared to feel a touch neglected when they’re having a good spell and don’t really need you as much! And quit judging yourself, too. You’re navigating one of the most difficult tightrope walks of all – being there for a child who wants to be independent but who can’t quite manage it yet. You aren’t always going to get it right, and neither are they. Don’t beat yourself up about it. The best thing you can do for your kid is be there for them when they need you to be, and love them, always.

If you find that you are struggling with parenting, don’t be afraid to seek help. It can be a relief to realize that many other people struggle with the same issues. I know it’s hard, but try to let other people in. It can be easy to assume that you are the only one who can help your kid. But even if that’s so, maybe other people can help YOU. Maybe your partner can do the laundry or the supermarket run this week. Don’t get so blinkered that you exhaust yourself completely, because then you won’t be able to help your kid. I am not suggesting that you always put yourself first – no parent of a chronically-ill child I have ever met is able to do that. But I am suggesting that you don’t put yourself last.

Look How Far They’ve Come

It can be hard, when you have a kiddo with chronic health issues, to get bogged down in doctor visits, prescriptions, rough nights, trips to the ER, sensory overloads, etc, etc. But looking back a couple of years usually lets us see the progress which has been made. Maybe things don’t look like you expected them to. But maybe your journey, and your young adult’s, will end up being more meaningful than you ever expected. Celebrate the wins!

We’d love to hear what works for you and your young adult. And if you could use support in your parenting journey, contact us to see how we can help.

Using Art and Mindfulness for Pain Control

Using Art and Mindfulness for Pain Control

Using Art and Mindfulness for Pain Control

 

“Art gives a face to the ambiguity of chronic pain…it gives a visual expression to something that is often elusive.”

– Dr. Steve Feinberg, American Chronic Pain Association

 

It’s Not Easy Being In Pain

 

How many of us have pinched a finger in a door, have sprained or broken a limb, have woken up with a back ache or gone to bed with a searing migraine? In some form or another, we can relate! After all, we are human. For some of us, however, either due to injury or illness, the pain never goes away. Day in and day out, pain follows us all the time. It is no surprise then, that pain impacts all aspects of our lives: our sleep, our ability to work or go to school, and even our social connections and family relationships. Using art and mindfulness for pain control can be an extremely helpful tool for our journey. Before we get into that, let’s look at some of the information on chronic pain and illnesses.

 

The Statistics

 

Did you know that nearly 8 million people in Canada live with chronic pain (or pain that persists for than three months)?i This means that 1 in 5 people suffer from prolonged pain. 1 in 5 children and youth experience ongoing pain and 1 in 3 adults 65 and older experience chronic pain.ii This can include but is not limited to conditions such as endometriosis, cancer, neurological disorders, fibromyalgia, and Lupus.

Like other chronic illnesses, the chronic pain experience is also impacted by other factors such as poverty, mental health and substance use issues, diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, and concurrent medical conditions.iii

 

The Stigma

 
Some of us have been on the receiving end of a dirty glare when parking in a handicap space, using the elevator meant for those with physical disabilities, or for not offering your seat on a bus to another person with physical disabilities. If only they knew! Because chronic pain is largely invisible, those affected by it can often feel disbelieved, unheard, or dismissed. The stigma builds as individuals are labeled as a “problematic and frequent patients,” mainly because they seek medical treatment regularly. The huge range of symptoms that one can have related to chronic pain makes it difficult to reach a diagnosis and plan for treatment. What begins is a search for effective, compassionate and quality help.
 

Facing Challenges

 
For people living with chronic pain or illness, getting help is not always straightforward.
In my own pain experience and in my work with others with chronic conditions, this seems to be a reoccurring experience. Navigating through our medical system is complex and confusing at times. For patients with chronic pain it’s certainly not a walk in the park!

To be fair, medical professionals do their best to care for their chronic pain patients but struggle to work within a health care system that is not always well-equipped to manage the complex nature of pain. With nearly 900,000 British Columbians without a family doctoriv, the limited amount of time with each patient, and long wait times in walk-in clinics and emergency wards, medical professionals are not always able to spend the time they need or want to with their patients.

As a result of this, chronic pain sufferers are faced with considerable challenges when seeking help?

  1. The need to review their medical history for every new practitioner. With each new doctor or specialist, patients are asked to review their medical challenges and ‘pain history’ and it is exhausting! If there is no continuity of care or no regular doctor who can follow your progress and prescribe effective treatments, those with chronic pain can be left with feelings of despair and frustration.
  2. Self-advocacy is hard. With many chronic pain symptoms being invisible, those of us with chronic conditions need to be forthright, consistent, and clear when we articulate our symptoms, and defend our state of being and need for treatment. This not a skill that everyone has and it forces already vulnerable people to go outside of their comfort zone or find an advocate who can be their spokesperson.
  3. It is hard to get timely help. It can take many months and even years to see specialists, receive surgery, or gain access to public pain programs. In the meantime, patients are left to cope, to seek out alternative forms of treatments. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to look, and see if they are accessible (financially, geographically, or demographically).
  4. Building a support network is not always easy or within reach. With prolonged reliance on friends and family for practical, financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual support, those with chronic pain may be left with changed or strained relationships. Asking for help regularly or relying on others may not always be an option due to life circumstances. Feelings of loneliness and of being a burden often weigh heavily on those with prolonged pain.

 

How Do We Address These Issues and Improve Quality of Life?

 
How many times have you heard, “You’re going to have to learn how to live with your pain?” We groan, yes, but it’s true. There is no magic wand, so how do we do this? The chronic pain experience is riddled with complexities; because it has both physiological and psychological components, taking a holistic approach in tackling chronic pain is the most effective treatment plan in retraining our body and brain. For a good discussion of the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to pain management, check out this video.

When used together, interventions such as pain medication, surgical procedures, counselling, body work (occupational therapy, physiotherapy, massage therapy, exercise, acupuncture), and the arts (visual, performance, music, dance, literary), can reboot our nervous system, teach us productive skills to manage symptoms, and help us to connect with ourselves and others and have a better quality of life amidst our pain experiences.
 

The Role of Art and Mindfulness For Pain Control

 
Using the Arts and mindfulness for its health benefits is widely becoming a critical component of healthcare to positively enhance, impact, healv and strengthen overall health and well-being.vi Research shows that mindfulness, or the act of paying full attention to the present moment without judgement,vii is a very effective practice to provide relief for both physical and psychological symptoms of chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn, leading researcher of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) advocates that mindfulness can alleviate symptoms of pain, reduce stress in the body, alter our negative thought distortions to more positive ones, create emotional balance, and enhance overall health.viii

It’s no surprise then, that combining the art making process with mindfulness can be an effective way to tackle pain management. The very act of creativity and expression can promote body awareness,ix be an effective practice for rehabilitation and lead to significant life changes. It also offers a tangible and fun way to learn mindfulness skills, and encourage self-compassionate creativity.
 

What types of art activities can we do to learn mindfulness?

 
There are a wide variety of artistic activities that can help us learn to be mindful. Here are a few ideas:

  • Activities such as drawing, paper marbling or knitting can provide temporary respite or healthy distraction from physical symptoms of pain,xi xii and allow chronic pain sufferers to lose themselves in the moment or artistic process.xii xiii
  • Reflective journaling and guided meditation connects both the physical body and the psychological mind, using the art making process to encourage positive self-care, and experimentation and risk-taking, two essential qualities of the art-making process.xiv
  • Creating a self-portrait or vision board is a way to explore understandings of self, improve self-confidence,xv process suffering or significant life changes, and provide a visual representation of the life you want to have moving forward.
  • Making art with others in a supportive environment can help us feel connected and understood by talking to others about pain experiences,xvi building companionship, and having a sense of belonging, and decreasing social isolation and loneliness.
  • Selecting from a range of colours, shapes or images in an art activity encourages experimentation,xvii affirms a sense of control over surroundings and the decision-making process, and builds upon and improves cognitive functions (memory processing and problem solving).xviii

 
Using art and mindfulness for pain control, along with healthy changes to our diet, sleep, and exercise regimes and with attentiveness to empathy and creativity can help lower stress levels, give our nervous system a rest, and helps to promote self-care habits. By using a variety of creative processes, health difficulties can be better expressed, understood, accepted, and help us build our resilience. xix

I hope this article has given you a taste of the benefits of using art and mindfulness for pain control. If you want to try something fun, meet others who understand and support you, and learn how to manage symptoms through the process of creating, join us in our Pain in the Arts class, where we will learn how to make art with a mindfulness lens.

If you want to learn more about our Arts in Health Program at Alongside You, please visit our page on Arts in Health.
 
 


i. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
ii. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
iii. Canadian Pain Task Force Report. 2021 Accessed July 13th, 2022. Link
iv. Xu, Xiao “Nearly 900,000 British Columbians don’t have a family doctor, leaving walk-in clinics and ERs swamped.” Globe and Mail. April 29 2022. Accessed July 13th. Link
v. Fancourt, Dr. Daisy; Warren, Katey and Augusterson, Henry. “Evidence summary for policy: The role of arts in improving health and wellbeing.” Report to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. April 2020. Accessed July 5th, 2022.
Link
vi. Link
viii. Gardner-Nix, Dr. Jackie and Lucie Costin-Hall. The Mindfulness Solution to Pain. New Harbinger Publicaitons, Inc. 2009: vii.
ix. Callahan, Margaret Jones. Mindfulness Based Art: The Sparks Guide for Educators and Counselors. Friesen Press. 2016.
x. Ann Behav Med. Eds. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.2017 Apr;51(2):199-213.Link
xi. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. J The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Behav Med (1985) 8: 163.
xii. Dr. Daniel Potts. How art therapy enhances the life for Dementia Patients. 2014. Accessed September 15th, 2016. Link
xiii. “The Art of Pain Management.” American Chronic Pain Association: Link
xiv. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xv. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xvi. Monti, Daniel W., Caroline Peterson, et al. A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT) for Women with Cancer. Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, Psycho-Oncology 15:363–373 (2006)
xvii. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
xviii. Quintana Hernández DJ et all. The effects of a neuropsychology program based on mindfulness on Alzheimer’s disease: randomized double-blind clinical study. Revista Espanola de Geriatria y Gerontologia [2014, 49(4):165-172]
xix. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
Arts In Health – Why We Should Be Using Art In Healthcare

Arts In Health – Why We Should Be Using Art In Healthcare

What is Arts in Health?

 

The idea that The Arts have a role in the health of individuals and communities has a long history in cultures around the world.i Arts in Health (also known as Arts in Medicine or Art in Healthcare) incorporates The Arts (visual, performing, literary, music, and dance) to support and enhance the continuum of care and plays a critical role in the overall health and well-being of people seeking help for various conditions.

This growing field of research and inquiry is developing world-wide, especially in The United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and across Europe.ii Increasingly, medical professionals are ‘socially prescribing’ non-medical, community-based activities and services that provide patients and practitioners greater health options when faced with complex medical and social problems.iii Though not as developed as in other countries, there are various health initiatives that incorporate The Arts with diverse creative holistic approaches to health across Canada.iv

This multi-disciplinary approach to health is becoming recognized both as an effective and creative way to positively impact health outcomes in both inpatient and outpatient healthcare and community settings, and boost mental, emotional, social, physical and brain health.

Specifically, participating in the art-making process:

 

  • Reduces stress, anxiety and depressionv
  • Improves self-confidence,vi self-awareness and empowermentvii
  • Encourages positive self-care skills
  • Provides a supportive setting to socialize, decreasing loneliness and social isolation
  • Is an effective preventative tool to manage symptoms of chronic pain and illness, and diseases such as Dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease
  • Improves and maintains neuro-spatial functions, memory processing and problem solving as we ageviii
  • Fosters emotional resilience, confidence, and personal growth
  • Is a healthy outlet and distraction tool to heal from physical, emotional, and psychological issues

To learn more, check out this infographic based on the research of Alain De Bolton and John Armstrong “Art As Therapy.”

 

Where does Arts in Health take place and what does it actually look like?

 
If you have ever been to a museum, a hospital, or community-based care home, you have most likely come across both art work and programs that fit under the umbrella of Arts in Health.

Museums and art galleries are accessible places where art can be viewed, questioned, created and bought. Artists and craftspeople are culture makers; they often play a huge role in cultural education and wellness. They are catalysts and bring people together through exhibitions, celebrations, ceremonial performances, and demonstrations. Artists can also showcase their work and sell their handcrafted art pieces.

Art work or painted murals are displayed in hospitals in hallways, waiting rooms, intensives care units, palliative and hospice wards, treatment and operating rooms and children’s wards. Outdoor art installations are also found on hospital grounds, music is played in high stress areas to benefit the patients and health-care staff, art activities are used at bedsides or during treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, and dialysis).

Community-based organizations such as rehabilitation and addiction centres, women’s shelters, day programs for people with diverse abilities, and immigrant services are just a few examples of where recreational forms of art-making are used to strengthen, to heal, and to communicate.
 

Who Benefits from Arts in Health Programs?

 
Along with other therapeutic interventions such as counselling, neurofeedback, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), occupational therapy and physiotherapy, The Arts allows us to discover, explore, practice, connect not only with others, but with ourselves. More specifically:
 

  • Kids and Teens: Approximately 20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder.ix Extracurricular activities such as art making can be especially beneficial for both teens and children because it provides a fun, non-threating, and inclusive setting where they can be introduced to new skills, learn coping strategies, shore up defenses and can develop deeper understandings of themselves and others.x
  • Socially Isolated Individuals: Approximately 1 in 5 Canadians say that are not satisfied with their number of friends.xi Loneliness is real. Making art with others can promote social satisfaction and allow individuals to connect with others with similar interests
  • Caregivers or other individuals with overwhelming stress and anxiety: Using The Arts is good place to begin when coping with the stresses of everyday life. Picking up a paint brush or writing in a journal can be small but positive self-care steps to improve everyday life
  • Individuals with diverse needs, abilities, and diagnoses: People with diverse physical, intellectual, developmental, and emotional needs thrive when art activities are tailored to suit their individual interests and needs. Those with chronic pain or illnesses also benefit from the art making experience which helps in pain management
  • Individuals who just want to have fun! Making art in a beautiful space with a variety of different art, alongside others can really boost our mood. We can also receive individualized and collective support and guidance while working on creative projects
  •  

    Who is considered an Arts in Health practitioner?

     
    Arts in Health practitioners are composed of a variety of individuals: professionally trained artists, artists-in-residence, expressive arts practitioners (who use multiple forms of art), arts or health educators, art consultants, community-based support staff, other health-care professionals, recreational instructors in hospital or community programs, or other creative individuals who incorporate art in health disciplines.xii

    These practitioners provide patients, family members, and caregivers with opportunities for creative engagement in a variety of ways. Many artists are involved in fundraising efforts for health-related causes. From auction items, art commissions, internet sales, art shows, and community events, artists are uniquely woven into the commercial market, bridging artistic development to benefit healthcare initiatives. It is common for artists to work as educators inside schools or workplaces. They lead students, teachers, businesses and organizations in creating collaborative art pieces, and provide training and professional development on how to practice self-care and how to infuse wellness in their classroom or organization.

    Artists have always played a pivotal role in places of religious expression and places of worship, such as churches, mosques, temples and more. They help bridge creative expression (music, building architecture, prayers) with spiritual health and healing.

    Musicians, performance artists, dancers, visual and literary artists play a huge part in improving our collective quality of life, especially during challenging times. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen how The Arts have brought us together and helped us cope anxiety and stress.
     

    So why does Arts in Health matter?

     
    Increasingly, the health-care system is going thought a shift, one that focuses on treating the whole person (body/mind/soul), not just the condition. Medical programs are integrating the arts into training, teaching and research because of the overwhelming evidence-based research that shows a direct correlation between healing and the arts.xiii

    This infographic provides a great visual on the importance of community-based Arts in Health.

    Both on an Individual and community level, at Alongside You, we seek to reduce the burdens of illness, to foster connection, provide hope and build resilience so we can help others live vibrant and thriving lives. It is for these reasons that we offer Arts in Health programs at Alongside You. If you have any questions about how our Arts in Health programs can help you on your journey, please reach out to me and I’ll be glad to hear your experience and talk about how including arts in your health plan could help!
     

    “An active engagement with the arts – whether as a participant, or as a viewer – is one effective way for individuals and communities to address issues of public health. We recognize that prevention and health promotion are important in avoiding the costs and issues associated with acute care later on, down the road. This is where the arts are effective in health promotion.”

    – Sarah Chilvers, (former Program Director for Health and Social Development for the Vancouver Foundation)


    i. Clift, Stephen, and Paul M. Camic (eds). Oxford Textbook of Creative Arts, Health, and Wellbeing: International Perspectives on Practice, Policy and Research. Oxford University Press. 2016. Page 3.

    ii. Clift, Stephen, and Paul M. Camic (eds). Oxford Textbook of Creative Arts, Health, and Wellbeing: International Perspectives on Practice, Policy and Research. Oxford University Press. 2016. Page 4.

    iii. Wouldn’t it be great to have this in Canada?

    iv. To name a few: Dalhousie University’s Medical Humanities Program called Heals, that combines the arts and humanities with healthcare; The University of Prince Edward Island’s Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing (AIRS) Research Environment that connects researchers across discipline with singing and well-being; McGill University’s leading researcher in neurosciences, Daniel Levitin’s work on the impact of music and the brain; Arts Health Network is hub that links research in arts and health knowledge across Canada; In Manitoba, University of Victoria’s Health Initiative (UHI) aims to enhance health research, healthy aging, indigenous health, and mental health.

    v. Repar, Patricia Ann DMA; Patton, Douglas Med. Stress Reduction for Nurses Through Arts-in-Medicine at the University of New Mexico Hospitals. The Departments of Music and Internal Medicine.

    Holistic Nursing Practice: July 2007 – Volume 21 – Issue 4 – p 182-186. University of New Mexico. Accessed July 14th, 2022. https://journals.lww.com/hnpjournal/Abstract/2007/07000/Stress_Reduction_for_Nurses_Through.4.aspx

    vi. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.

    vii. McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.

    viii. Zeki, Semir. Art and the Brain. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7). 1999. Accesses September 14th, 2020. Link

    ix. Canadian Mental Health Association Statistics: Mental Health and Mental Illness. Link

    x. Coholic, Diana. Arts Activities for Children and Young People in Need. (2010). P. 11.

    xi. Canadian Mental Health Association. Coping with Loneliness. Link

    xii. Dewey, Patricia, Bettes, Donna et.all. Arts, Health and Wellbeing in America. (2017). Accessed July 15th, 2022. Link

    xiii. This is evident with the growing recognition amongst Canadian physicians the establishment of medical schools such as Queens University, Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Alberta that bridge medical training with The Arts.