Ashton Sullivan

Art to Heal the Heart, Mind and Soul

January 2022 IssueAshton0122
by Edwina Hoyle
Photography by Cassidy Dunn Photography

Ashton Sullivan, a licensed mental health counselor with a master’s degree in art therapy, is trained in mental health and creative intervention. Art therapy, which is used to discover and uncover the root causes of problems, is the integration of art media and traditional psychotherapy.

“Drawing allows us to open up, relax and feel less vulnerable when addressing the effects of trauma,” Ashton said. “People may feel anxious or fearful about talking about their issues, but drawing and working with their hands allows them to relax and reduce their stress. Therapy may be scary, but art is more comforting. It creates some distance in the way a client’s story is used to tell their story and addresses feelings of vulnerability. It’s a symbolic form of communication.”

Visual art taps into both the logical and emotional sides of the brain, Ashton explained. Clients may have buried memories of trauma, and drawing is a safe way to deal with the pain. The art helps to awaken them to hidden issues, and then allows them to talk logically. By exploring their innermost thoughts and feelings with imagery and metaphor, they gain a new perspective and awareness of self. They are able to recognize unmet needs and identify ways to protect themselves in healthy ways, without isolating themselves from others.

“Messages can come out of art. No other species on earth can create things, like music and art, that aren’t simply for survival,” Ashton said. “Many people say they aren’t creative. All humans are creative and able to brainstorm to create solutions, to think outside the box. Mindful awareness is the goal…to get in the zone when you’re lost in time and nothing else matters.”

Ashton’s interest in art therapy came when she was in high school when her best friend died. “I went through photo albums and made a scrapbook with pictures and poems I wrote. It was a way to document and honor her life and my grief. Art allows you to lean into your emotions while making a story out of symbols.”

Mandalas, which are symmetrical and circular with geometrical patterns, have been used for centuries to focus one’s attention on meditation. One of Ashton’s professional colleagues created a series of mandalas in an art journal and noticed they kept having the same theme and the same odd shape within. Over time she wondered why it kept coming up until an aha-moment occurred when her doctor showed her images of a tumor. It was the same size and shape as the image in her mandalas. Her subconscious mind was creating a symbolic meaning.

Ashton explained that when assessing a client’s art, a certified art therapist evaluates not just the finished product, but also the process. Drawing is a kinetic sensory experience, and the therapist may observe that the client is pressing down hard, for example, which may represent repressed anger. A phallic symbol may mean past trauma the client has repressed and may not even remember. Deep, jagged lines may indicate anxiety. Rain may symbolize grief, depression, or sadness, and an icy frozen landscape may indicate a dissociative disorder. “It’s interpreting everything… clients describe their artwork and hidden issues come out,” she said.

“If boundaries are drawn, it’s important to look at what’s inside and what’s outside. What is inside is generally masked. It’s how they feel. What’s outside may represent how others see them.”

Art therapy can help with anxiety, phobias, depression, complex childhood trauma, impulsive behaviors, toxic relationships, self-harm, abusive relationships, or help those living with family members with mental illness.

Ashton also works with first responders who see horrible events and can’t get those images out of their heads. They sometimes feel that there is a stigma attached to therapy, and they get in a dark place. She said the goal of art therapy is to stay in a “window of tolerance,” to desensitize and reprocess their exposure to trauma in a way that will allow them to think about the trauma without feeling it, and to reframe the traumatic experience as a memory picture on paper. Different ways of perceiving the event allows the brain to solve these problems without overwhelming distress.

Art therapy allows the therapist to help clients with present problems and issues arising from sources in the past. Equally important, the therapist will offer help with skill-building like coping, mindfulness and dealing with emotions. “The sooner one comes in after trauma, the better,” Ashton stated. “And motivation and commitment to practice the skills outside of therapy equals a better outcome.”

Ashton’s Tips for Mental Health:
1. Practice mindfulness. It’s all about focusing on one thing in the present moment with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance, but not being judgmental. You can practice mindfulness by doing yoga, journaling, or praying.

2. Don’t be afraid of your emotions.
 Many people believe that sadness is weakness, or being emotional means you are out of control. But not dealing with emotions can cause problems. Face your fears to overcome them (unless there is an actual danger, of course!)

3.  Learn how to communicate more effectively, cultivate healthy, trusting relationships. 
Say no to things that don’t serve you well. Stop trying to please everyone, and ask for what you want. Your needs are just as important as everyone else’s.

4.  Let go of some control, stop blaming and judging, have faith in a higher power, and cultivate beliefs that help you thrive and feel more at peace.
Accept the past, and understand the cause of problems.

5.  Find your passion, or a hobby, and do more of it.
 It’s food for the soul.