On Colors and Emotions: Exploring Art Therapy with Farida Ihab

On Colors and Emotions: Exploring Art Therapy with Farida Ihab

Photo via Harvard Health

From ancient Egypt to the present day, Egyptians have always prioritized art. Whether to represent faith or culture or as a form of expression, art holds a special place in their lives. With the emergence of conversations about the importance of mental health, many began looking for different ways to invest in the right form of therapy.

Art therapy is one of the less popular forms of therapy in Egypt. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy integrates mental health and human services and enriches people’s lives through active art making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.

In a Q&A session with Egyptian-American art therapist Farida Ihab, we explore misconceptions surrounding art therapy, the process behind it, and her work in Egypt. With a BA in Psychology and Philosophy from York University in Toronto, Canada, and an MA in Art Therapy and Creativity Development from the Pratt Institute in New York, Ihab moved to Cairo and has been an art therapist for the past six years.

Can you walk us through the process of an art therapy session?

I view the art therapy session as a time that is tailored and tailored to my clients, it is a time to do what they need most. I start by asking them how they’re feeling and what’s going on. The session can continue like this (verbal processing) or I suggest an art prompt based on what’s coming up. My artistic prompts are usually open-ended and might go something like this: “Can you get a picture of this? [emotion] you experience” or “let’s explore what your inner critic looks like”.

Once the image or piece is created, we look at the process and the outcome of the person’s work. We ask questions about it, look at the different parts that make up the piece and become curious about the meaning of the person they attribute to their work. This conversation may last a few sessions and serves as an insight into the person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior in relation to the subject under study.

Artists aside, most people cannot express themselves artistically, can they still seek art therapy?

In any case, artists and non-artists alike can take advantage of art therapy. One misconception about art therapy is that one must have an artistic background to engage in practice. However, what we often forget is that we all have our unique expressions and we all have a creative energy.

Simply put, the color red can symbolize passion and love for one, and anger for another – that’s quite a difference in creative expression. This color meaning association requires no formal art practice. We all have our unique visual language and creative expression, it’s just a matter of openness and curiosity that allows a human to access it.

When someone is afraid to start art therapy because “they don’t have any artistic skills,” I like to remind them that every line, color, or shape they put on paper comes from an inner source, and that’s what happens it’s intrinsically worth staying true to them, even if the meaning isn’t clear yet.

An art therapist has the ability and training to guide their client or patient through their creative process. So if a person feels stuck or doesn’t know where to start, an art therapist may offer a different art prompt or suggest a more accessible art material to help them express themselves creatively.

How do I know which form of therapy is right for me and when should someone seek art therapy?

A common notion about seeking some form of therapy is when a person is in an active crisis. However, this does not have to be the case. I believe a good time to seek therapy is when someone isn’t necessarily in a crisis but is noticing a struggle in their life. Some common (non-crisis) reasons to seek therapy are: feeling stuck, gaining a deeper understanding of yourself, wanting to process difficult emotions and building coping skills, experiencing relationship changes, a life or work change, or feeling not belonging. Other reasons to seek therapy are of course dealing with trauma (regardless of whether it is current or past), dealing with grief, depression, anxiety, neurodivergence or experiencing mood, personality, eating or psychotic disorders.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to find the right form of therapy, or even better, the right therapist, for you. This is a problem I see a lot and I would like to see mental health platforms talk about it more. It takes effort and research to find the right therapist, but it’s worth it; as it is an investment in yourself and your mental health journey.

A few suggestions for finding the right form of therapy or therapist for you is to be clear about your area of ​​struggle and look for the form of therapy or type of therapist that can best help. It’s important to look for a therapist who specializes in or has training in what you need help with and one that you are drawn to because of their biography, work, and background. You can also ask for recommendations from someone you trust or from social media groups that represent your community and identity.

Remember that you have the right to ask your therapist about their approach to therapy, how they conduct a session, and their experiences with people who resemble your identity and your problem area.

One should seek art therapy when one is willing to try a different medium of expression. The benefits of art therapy range from increasing self-esteem and awareness to building resilience, strengthening social skills, providing healthy self-expression, processing trauma, and reducing symptoms of mental illness.

Does art therapy work for all types of mental disorders?

Art therapy is used for a wide range of mental illnesses and disorders. Another misconception about this practice is that it is only for children. However, art therapy has proven effective across all age groups and conditions. It is practiced with children, adolescents, young, middle and older adults. It can also help with depression, trauma, eating disorders, anxiety, grief, neurodivergence, psychotic disorders, dementia and more.

In New York, where I received my formal training, art therapy services existed in schools, hospitals, private practices, community programs, outpatient centers, and rehabilitation centers; which shows how versatile art therapy as a service is.

Why do you think art therapy is relatively uncommon in Egypt, despite being different from traditional therapy?

Art therapy, along with other creative therapies, may not be as popular as other mental health services in Egypt as it is relatively new from a professional and academic perspective. In the US, the first available graduate art therapy program was offered in the late 1960s, while Egypt does not offer a formal master’s or bachelor’s degree in art therapy (however, there is an art therapy diploma at the University of Helwan). . The lack of programs and licenses in Egypt for mental health professionals interested in becoming art therapists creates a scarcity of the service itself, leading to its limited availability as a service.

Another factor I think is the lack of an organizing body (like the American Art Therapy Association in the US) in Egypt dedicated to bringing practicing art therapists together and using them as a profession and as a place to find resources, to regulate professionals in the field.

Another important reason may be the lack of awareness about the effectiveness and impact of creative therapies on mental health compared to other modalities and forms of psychotherapy.

In your opinion, how can art therapy be promoted in Egyptian society?

There is definitely a growing initiative to talk about mental health in different settings like schools, businesses and social media. This is already a great basis for inviting more creative therapists to these talks and platforms so they can share their practice and shed light on its effectiveness and misconceptions.

Can you tell us something about your platform unearth?

I created unearth on Instagram in September 2020 as a space to showcase and dive into two practices that have transformed me personally and professionally: art therapy and yoga. At the time I was doing both and found them to be related and complementary. Excavate means to dig to find something buried in the ground or to discover something that was hidden or lost; which to me is very similar to what happens on the therapeutic journey. Our true voice and inner wisdom are often buried under layers of shame, should, conditioning, societal pressures and expectations. Having a safe space to navigate through these levels is essential to finding what is being lost or no longer heard.

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