Emotional expression is something most of us do on a daily basis. Whether we are yelling at the car that cut us off, laughing at a funny TV show, or crying the loss of something of someone in our lives, we are almost constantly acting upon our emotions. Many of us don’t give much thought to our personal styles of emotional expression, because it often happens so naturally and automatically. However, the more awareness we have of our emotions, the more capable we will be of dealing with them in healthy ways that actually help us feel better in the long run.
But what constitutes healthy emotional expression? It has been found that the notion of “scream, shout, let it all out” may not, in fact contain the wisdom that we once thought. In fact, researchers studying the effects of cathartic anger have found that outward expressions of anger (yelling, screaming, smashing things, etc) actually make people angrier, dur to the increase in arousal. This research provides a stark alternative to the depictions of emotional expression in popular media, as well as some of our cultural ideas about healthy expression of anger.
Similarly, “a good cry” isn’t always good. Psychologists from the University of South Florida studied over 3000 ‘crying experiences’ and discovered that while often crying did improve mood, there was sometimes no mood improvement and occasionally even a decrease in mood. Most notably, the positive effects of crying depended on when the crying happened and who was crying, as well as whether the crier had social support.
Yet, while we don’t want to express our emotions in unconstructive ways (although there are always times when the occasional yell or cry feels very constructive), we also don’t want to keep our feelings locked away. So this begs the question: what does healthy emotional expression actually look like? Obviously this differs wildly from person to person, but in cases when emotions become difficult to deal with, therapy can be a great tool for emotional expression.
One of the primary interests of art therapy is to create a space where clients can express their emotions safely and constructively. In art therapy, we can express big feelings (fear, anger, grief, sadness, etc.) using paint and paper, and experience the satisfaction of having a process and visual product that shows how we are feeling without words. As such, the process of creating art in art therapy often becomes a metaphor for the emotional landscape of our lives. Each person will have different nuances and stories behind their emotions, a different art process, and different goals, but emotional expression is often a common thread uniting art therapy clients.
While creating art can sometimes be frustrating and tedious, I have seen firsthand the benefits of creating art without self-judgement. Everything you create is you, and that is enough. When we can immerse ourselves in a creative process and be curious about what flows through us, we can surprise ourselves with the beauty, sensitivity, and vulnerability we have inside. We just needed a little help from our art supplies!