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  • Writer's pictureKim Gibson, MS, ATR, LPCC

2024 Migraine World Summit + Five Ways Art Therapy Can Help With Pain

2024 Migraine World Summit + Five Ways Art Therapy Can Help With Pain

Hey all!  Coming up tomorrow on March 6th, 2024, is the 2024 Migraine World Summit.  This is a free, eight day online event.  I’m not affiliated with it in any way but I wanted to help spread the word because the online sessions look really helpful and I know I have family members, friends and clients that deal with migraines on the regular.  Forty seven million Americans do!  So please check out their website for more information.   The sessions that I am hoping to catch include:

Day 1, March 6th-   “Controlling Chronic Migraines”

Day 2  “Menopause, Perimenopause & Migraine”

Day 3  “Supplments and Food that Ease Migraine”

Day 3 “Is Migraine a Brain Energy Problem”

Day 4 “The Nervous System, Stored Trauma and Migraine”

Day 5 “Advocacy, Access and Migraine at Work.”

Day 6 “How myalgic encephalomyelitis & chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are connected to migraine.”  

Day 7 Protecting Our Kids: Navigating Migraine at School

Wow!! Writing all this out made me excited!  I’m one of those people (like most ADHDers) who soaks up tons of info and stores it away until it can help someone I know.  Knowledge is power.  In total, this summit offers 34 different webinars, so check out their webpage for more info about how to view the seminars and how long you have access to each online session.  

I don't see any specific sessions related to art therapy or EMDR, two interests of mine, so I thought I would write a little bit about art therapy and how it can help with pain. In my current practice, I do see clients whose presenting concerns include chronic pain and/or illness. And when I was in grad school for my first Masters degree (MS in Art Therapy), I had the opportunity to work at a children's hospital. There I provided art therapy services to kids and teens with sickle cell anemia or thalassemia and I also saw patients on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. This year long internship really allowed me to see how art therapy can be so effective in many ways including decreasing pain.

Art therapy and Pain Management

 For those that are wondering how Art Therapy can help with migraines and pain in general, please see this article in the February 2018 issue of The Arts in Psychotherapy.  The article is a review of a study with 200 art therapy participants hospitalized for a medical issue (such as cancer, neurological disease, gastrointestinal issues, heart and vascular disease, transplant or surgery). The researchers found that participating in art therapy for an average of 50 minutes significantly improved their moods, and lowered levels of pain and anxiety.

One theory suggested in the article is that art therapy helps lower the perception of pain by moving one’s mental focus away from the painful stimulus. So maybe creating art serves as a distraction?  But the study also suggests, beyond distraction, it is a way to relax which alters mood, so the pain doesn't control one’s emotional state.   Being creative helps the body to release endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers, which can block the nerve cells that receive pain signals, essentially blunting the pain. When this happens, one naturally relaxes.  One can not be both tense and relaxed at the same time.  And I bet most of us have had that experience where you are painting, knitting or creating something  and you have lost track of time?  And while creating you are less aware of bodily sensations like hunger or having to pee.  

Besides offering a distraction and increasing relaxation, creating art can also reduce blood pressure, bolster one’s immune system, improve brain cognition, & fight inflammation.  All much needed things when one is in the hospital or at home experiencing pain.  

Another way that art therapy helps one manage pain is by offering a safe way to express and process unconscious thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes this is done by the images themself or by metaphor (Angheluta & Lee, 2011). Art therapy may feel less invasive to patients (compared to talk therapy).  People in pain may not perceive themselves as having psychological issues along with the pain, yet deserve supportive care.  For example, someone in the hospital may be well aware of needing medical help for pain but may be hesitant to acknowledge any anxiety or fear related to their pain and may be hesitant to ask for help with the emotional side of things even though anxiety is common in people who are experiencing pain.  Feelings of insecurity, fear of dependence, and fear of the unknown (When will this end???, What will help???) all contribute to an increase in anxiety and possibly depression. 

Art therapy can help reduce uncomfortable feelings and provide distance from them through the actual act of creating something, using materials and focusing on color, line and shape.  And anxiety can also decrease because of the attachment and comfort created by the triangular relationship between the art, the art process, and the art therapist.  

This is why art therapy is so much more than coloring in pre printed handouts and buying an “art therapy” workbook & doing it at home.  And honestly, I am not against those things, but the relationship is so key.  An art therapist plays an active role in the therapeutic process even when it is only the client creating art in the room.  An art therapist can offer support and can help one process concerns around pain.  It’s such a cool process!  And doing it on your own has benefits but is best described as “therapeutic art” in my opinion versus “art therapy” which refers to the client, the creative process, the artwork and the therapeutic rapport.  

So to summarize how art therapy can help with pain management, for those that like to skim or want just the cliff notes version, here it is: Five ways Art Therapy can Help with Pain.  

Art Therapy can help with pain- 

  1. By offering a distraction

  2. By offering a means to achieve relaxation

  3. By providing an avenue to process uncomfortable thoughts and feelings

  4. Being creative (via art making, music, or writing)  can release endorphins (which can block pain symbols) and also increase one’s immune system.  Plus if you like the end result, your brain releases dopamine.  

  5. The therapeutic rapport is key and can provide support and attachment.

Please reach out if you’d like to learn more.  I’m a LPCC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor) in the state of California & can help clients in person in my office (Los Angeles) or online throughout the state.  And I am also a registered art therapist (ATR) and have been seeing clients since 2001.  Years of education and experience and I’d be happy to help.  

Kim Gibson, LPCC, ATR


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