Written by Sophie Canadé, ATR, LPC
Regardless of what motivates you to investigate art therapy, the benefits that can be found are far reaching. There is speculation that dopaminergic medications can result in a surge of creativity in people living with Parkinson’s. I like to mention this research as a factor that might encourage someone to try art therapy, even if it is something completely new.
Much as that idea has its appeal, it would be an oversimplification of a complex condition and the myriad of reasons that making art could be compelling as you learn to manage the changes that come with a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
So, let’s take a moment to consider some of the reasons art-making can benefit you and help you make this transition:
- Finding Pleasure. Art making is enjoyable. There is no such thing as a “wrong” mark. Every expression is valid.
- Experiencing Control. Art making is an activity in which the artist — you— can experience choice (through color, medium, line, subject matter, etc.) and control over your environment.
- Valuing Individuality. Free creation can encourage spontaneity which can, in turn, improve confidence in your own ideas and in yourself, overall.
- Expressing Yourself. Art is another language for communication that can be done at an artist’s own pace. The pressure to communicate quickly, accurately or without hesitation does not exist.
- Relaxation. Art making has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce repetitive and uncontrollable (anxious) thoughts and lift depression.
- Finding Flow in Mind-Body Connection. In a relaxed state with focus on the expression rather than on the physical movement itself, motion can become more fluid.
- Strengthening Concentration, Memory & Executive Functions. Art making increases the bilateral activity in the brain. When drawing or painting, you are using both the right and the left hemispheres of the brain. This is wonderful way to take greater advantage of mental resources.
Art Therapy and Parkinson’s Symptoms
In addition to the intangible and ethereal ways that life can be enhanced through creativity and expression, art making can be used therapeutically to address specific symptoms of Parkinson’s.
- Tremor. Approximately 70% of people living with Parkinson’s are affected by tremor, and this can be exacerbated by stress. Relaxation is key. In an art studio or other safe space where acceptance is nurtured and focus is on the process rather than on the product, art making can lower blood pressure, slow down breathing and calm the central nervous system. Acceptance of a tremor can actually soothe the tremor.
- Freezing. When the body is on autopilot, often during repetitive movement, and is interrupted, neuromuscular freezing can result. When you are deeply immersed in art making, the focus shifts to creating with deliberate, novel motions, and you are less likely to freeze.
- Impaired speech. The physical and cognitive symptoms of Parkinson’s can result in impaired speech. Self-expression and communication with others is essential to well-being. Art making opens a door for non-verbal communication. The act if creating benefits you, the artist, and the act of sharing what you’ve created strengthens your relationships with others.
- Isolation and Depression. The social and emotional connections you form by sharing a safe, creative space are invaluable for combating isolation and depression. An art therapy support group can be beneficial for those living with Parkinson’s as well as for care partners and caregivers. I have witnessed first hand the emotional support, information, and inspiration that members of these groups provide to one another in a way that only someone that has experienced living with Parkinson’s could do.
What Kind of Art Makes Good Therapy?
In my years working with people who have Parkinson’s, preferences for art materials have varied as much as personalities. The choices of medium are influenced by each person’s progression of symptoms, as well as by the sort of relationship a person is ready to have with those symptoms. I have found that wet-on-wet watercolor painting can be satisfying for many people, as this method of painting easily creates a satisfying mark with minimal pressure. This approach to painting can be soothing, and we already know how much relaxation plays a part in reducing tremor. However, a few members of my current art therapy support group have really appreciated the use of water color pencils, because they add precision to the medium. These artists choose to focus intently on making deliberate, unique marks, knowing that it is a balance between gaining control through attention to movement (reducing the likelihood of freezing) and putting too much pressure on themselves to make precisely the mark they expect, which brings stress.
Finish This Article and Find More Like It
The rest of Sophie Canadé’s article and much more can be found in a powerful new edition of our free Every Victory Counts® manual. Our Every Victory Counts® manual gives people living with Parkinson’s, their care partners and their family members the tools they need to take control of their own Parkinson’s treatment through a proactive approach to self-care.
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 Zaidel, Dahlia W. “Creativity, Brain, and Art: Biological and Neurological Considerations.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (2014): 389. PMC. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.