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Joan Cusack Handler Ph.D.

Art as a Path to Emotion

Art, one's own or another's, is emotionally and psychologically healing.

Our recent posts have addressed the importance of getting in touch with one’s feelings and communicating these to selected confidantes. What is ever clear, however, is the great effort such openness requires of those of us skilled at keeping our emotional lives under control. In these cases, we aren’t interested in knowing what feelings reside beneath our awareness; we work hard to keep them from awareness; in fact, we construct lives/personas that have little resemblance to the person we are emotionally. For some, emotions are virtually non-existent — except on call.

But such inhibition requires great effort and stresses the mind and body. Problems erupt. Health problems: psychological and/or physical. Our doctors tell us to reduce the stress in our lives. Sports, relaxation, time with family, reduced work hours are all ways of doing this. But until we release the forbidden feeling that the stress is generating, these other efforts are rendered far less successful.

Towards that end, art offers a powerful tool for accessing feelings—be they unconscious or just beneath the surface.

All arts do that.

I come to you today wearing four hats—psychologist, poet, publisher, and patient — all of which inform my belief in the importance of the arts in wellness. Psychological research unequivocally supports this connection: documenting the effectiveness of art in reducing the stress, anxiety, depression, even pain, associated with physical and/or psychological illness, in particular, but life in general as well. So involvement with art is important to all of us.

The reason that art is healing is simple: It helps people get in touch with and express feelings that might otherwise remain buried or ignored. There’s a long roster of feelings that we’re "told," either explicitly or implicitly, not to feel. That is in addition to our natural resistances, which are fed from early life by parents and authority figures. Society is equally powerful; for example, certain religious and spiritual affiliations chastise us for the feelings we have, as if it's a sin to be angry, envious, greedy, self-involved, or proud. We’ve so introjected these principles that at all costs, we don’t want to see them in ourselves. We aim to be a better person than one who is.

The problem is intensified for the ill and their caregivers: the population I want to spotlight in today’s post. Doctors and caregivers also inhibit what we feel. They warn us that attending to painful (often referred to as "negative") feelings is to inhibit treatment/cure — despite the fact that psychology teaches us that repressed or suppressed feelings of anger, depression, loss of control, isolation, fear, and anxiety intensify over time, become toxic and interfere with health, treatment, and cure. On the other hand, when expressed, their intensity is reduced, and healing is enhanced.

In my work with cancer patients, I’ve been struck by how stridently they‘re instructed to "stay positive!" As in, deny all but "positive" feelings regarding their illness. Avoid fear, anxiety, anger; focus on hope, faith, acceptance; believe in prayer, doctors, medicine. On the other hand, physicians and medical staff too are encouraged to suppress their conflicted feelings about illness and patients; as a result, many hide out, focusing on tests and symptoms rather than the person. Clearly, no one would argue that it is important for the patient to remain positive, but the road to hope is paved by first addressing the reality of its opposite. Art helps us do that.

And there is hope! Despite the fact that significant strides towards more humanistic care are being made in the medical community, specifically the emergence of narrative medicine, which focuses on the whole person rather than simply the disease, medicine’s/society’s prevailing focus on suppressing painful feelings is that these feelings do not disappear. They’re simply unattended to and unspoken. Even for the most defended, they hover at the edge of consciousness — intensifying the more we try to negate/ignore them.

The fact is that illness is painful, physically, and emotionally — and unattended pain increases with neglect. One of the greatest of these is loneliness — the person "in solitary confinement" tortured, terrified by what is happening to his/her body. As has been discussed in an earlier post, the compassionate listener (doctor, partner, family, friend) can lighten that burden such that the person gains renewed strength to continue fighting. They know that they are understood. They are no longer alone with their terrors. That sharing/unburdening in turn helps to lift their spirits. No longer imprisoned, the terror is released and reduced (albeit temporarily).

Not only do we need permission from our loved ones and our doctors to feel what we feel, but we also need help — using techniques and interests that will help us to open up to those feelings. Art is one of the most substantial of these — be it active (making our own) involvement in art — music, painting, dance, photography, or creative writing. Likewise, research emphasizes its effectiveness where involvement is passive — specifically, involvement with art made by another, i.e. reading literature, listening to music, or viewing visual art and dance.

Art concerns itself with life—the underbelly of it, the glory. The beauty, the mess, the truth. It says what we cannot say. Art’s subject matter is emotion; its purpose is expression. Thus, art communicates — artist to audience. While active involvement with making art involves creative expression of what one feels — consciously and unconsciously, so too participation in another’s experience helps us to access those feelings in ourselves.

Think of what you felt when you listened to your favorite piece of music. Did it bring you to tears? Make you feel sad or happy? Were you transported to another place — perhaps more peaceful and serene? How did you feel when you read your last book and a character became ill/well/successful/frightened/anxious? The likelihood is that you felt that as well. You were involved with your characters (friends eventually) to the extent that you were happy for them, sad, frightened. You were feeling what they felt. You empathized.

What makes that possible is that artists dedicate their creative lives to the authentic expression of emotion, to the lived life. He/she reaches down into themselves to find that experience/feeling and express it, thereby communicating it to us, their audience. In so doing, he/she triggers that emotion in us. How fortunate, then, to discover one’s own artistic gift; how fortunate to be visited by that of another.

Creative writing may well be the most expressive of the arts because it is the most direct and the least subject to interpretation. As such, its message is more directly communicated. Writers and readers alike need literary art to help them process their feelings about life in general, and specifically, illness.

Literary art, and poems in particular, name things for us. Sometimes they name what we feel—what we cannot express on our own. They tell us that we are not alone. But for the writer, writing carries greater risk. Unlike the musician, dancer, or visual artist who uses notes, movement, paint, and symbols to make their art, and as such, maintain some anonymity, the writer risks complete exposure because the tool he/she uses is a language which is common to all of us. To write openly then is to undress in public.

Consequently, to defend against the threat implicit in self-revelation, much of what is written about illness tends to be censored — resulting in work that is preachy, glib and cavalier, or stoic and devoid of the emotional pain that naturally accompanies serious illness. In keeping with our mission to serve art and community and to bring poetry to the underserved, the press I founded identified yet another underserved community —the ill — and another category of book that we wanted to publish, specifically those that dealt openly and honestly with the profound psychological, emotional, and physical issues connected to illness.

But it was not enough for us to reach the ill and caregivers. We needed to reach the medical community as well. For us to make a difference in the lives of patients, we needed to educate doctors (and medical students) also. Given our commitment to publish work that focuses on the emotional and psychological terrain of everyday life and to bring it to wider/underserved populations, our books about illness are grounded in the belief that literature provides, and is a powerful window into the human psyche and thereby a rich clinical/teaching tool in that they combine fine art with an honest revelation of the "lived" experience of illness and pain—presented in accessible language and syntax.

Literature exposes the underbelly of all life and death in ways that we are seldom privy to — even in a clinical setting. Yet it is just that understanding of human behavior and frailty that informs the most humane of us — be we doctors/teachers/artists/everyday human beings. More specifically, to understand physical and mental suffering, one must be aware of the internal emotional/psychological landscape that illness creates — in the patient, in the family, in caregivers, in doctors. Such understanding forms the bedrock of the most humanistic and enlightened minds.

In keeping with our commitment to bring poetry to underserved communities in places where they live, work, and receive services, we dreamed of placing books of poetry and other fine literature in hospital waiting rooms. Waiting, even for the most benign care, often produces anxiety and stress in patients and caregivers. To date, over 19,000 copies of the first two volumes of our waiting room reader have been gifted to over 150 hospitals nationally. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Patients and medical staff agree that the books significantly enhance patient care.

Lately, I catch myself dreaming of Volume III.

Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own.

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