One of the most difficult things for chronic pain sufferers is that they feel that those around them cannot truly understand what they are feeling. Chronic pain is not only a physical sensation; it is also a mental and emotional experience that can be isolating for not only the person suffering but also their loved ones. Even with clinical help that includes prescription treatment, counseling, and other traditional therapies, some patients suffering from chronic pain feel that the depth of their experience is not being recognized.

In these cases, sufferers can get some relief in an unlikely place: the artist’s chair.

Perhaps the most famous example of somebody using art as therapy for chronic pain is Frida Kahlo. Born in Mexico in 1907, Kahlo suffered a horrific bus crash when she was a teenager, a crash that left her dealing with chronic pain, depression, and infertility. To relieve her anguish, she turned to painting.

Of her hundreds of painting, 54 are self-portraits that graphically depict the separation and pain she felt, both from her physical body and from those around her, including her husband, Diego Rivera. Kahlo looks out from each canvas with an unflinching expression, confronting both the audience, challenging them to understand, and herself, examining the destruction of her body while at the same time piecing herself together.

Painting self portraits can offer an escape from the everyday experience of chronic pain while at the same time distilling images and scenes that other people can understand and relate to. Abstract art with angles and sharp points can help others understand the sharpness of pain; smooth edges and undulating curves can be soothing to brush onto a canvas. The use of art to express complicated emotions has gained traction as therapy for patients experiencing chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Those who are willing to dive into the complex emotions that come with these illnesses often find great benefit to themselves as a cathartic release, and to their families, who are better able to understand the suffering of their loved one.

How can you incorporate art, as an artist or a viewer, to better understand chronic pain?

Image by helmuthess via Flickr 

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