Talk Therapy—Without Words

An alternative therapy commonly used for patients with HIV/AIDS proves useful for other conditions.


Many forms of therapy rely on the patient being able to verbally communicate thoughts and feelings. Arts-based therapies, however, can help people explore sensitive and controversial topics that might be hard to talk about.

Body mapping, which has been in use for more than 30 years, is an interesting, revealing, and productive way of using art to help patients “talk” about their thoughts and feelings. Several studies have used body maps as therapy for patients with HIV/AIDS, but researchers from University of New South Wales, Sydney, theorized that it could be particularly helpful for patients with cognitive disability who have complex support needs as well as those who are socially marginalized.

In body-mapping sessions, participants trace outlines of their bodies and then “populate” the outlines with drawings, magazine photos, symbols, words, and other visual representations of the experience they are investigating. It is a form of storytelling that allows the participant to engage physically, visually, verbally, and relationally (through dialogue and interaction with the researcher).

The researchers used body mapping in 2 studies, first with 29 adults with cognitive disability and complex support needs, such as mental illness and sensory impairment, to explore experiences of support planning. In the second study, one of the researchers used body mapping with 13 teens and young adults with complex support needs (eg, drug and alcohol misuse) to explore support they received during a life transition.

The body-mapping technique, the researchers say, shifts the power balance between researcher and participant, because the patient is in control of the images used and where they are placed on the map. Patients could decide not only how they spoke about the topic, but also which topic they spoke about. The researchers say, “we were often taken to surprising places” that might not have come up in an interview, as when participants used images to reveal aspects of cultural heritage and sexual orientation that had not come up in conversation. For example, a transsexual woman in the second study was uncomfortable with the process until she covered her incorrectly gendered body with another piece of paper on which she could redraw her body as she wished.

Body mapping does not suit everyone, the researchers acknowledge. Participants need to be able to engage in a level of abstraction and reflection about personal experiences. It is important to have other methods available for those who do not want to take part. The researchers say one way they protected patients was by recruiting through service providers so support could be “embedded in existing relationships.” The potential vulnerabilities of the patients mean researchers need to be flexible, they add, and allow the method to evolve, much like the patients’ personal stories.

Dew A, Smith L, Collings S, Savage ID. FQS. 2018;19(2).

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