Art therapy uses the process of creating art, guided by an art therapist, to manage behaviors and feelings, reduce stress and anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
By Steve Brown
You don’t need to be a great artist to take part in art therapy.
In fact, you don’t need any artistic talent to benefit from art therapy.
Anyone, including adults and children and people from all walks of life, can benefit.
Art therapy allows communication to flow more easily and lets you explore feelings you have difficulty verbalizing.
What Is Art Therapy?
Art therapy has been defined as “a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.” (1)
Art therapy is a tool that can be used to resolve issues, manage behaviors and feelings, reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-esteem, and improve inner awareness.
With the help of the therapist, you can uncover underlying messages in your artistic creations.
These messages may illuminate previously unexplored emotions or thoughts.
While you can create art at home or take an art class, neither will provide the same benefits as art therapy.
Art therapists have extensive training in both art and psychology, and need a masters degree to practice. (2)
The relationship you develop with your art therapist will provide you with a safe place to express yourself.
During an art therapy session, your focus will be on self-expression, communication, and the creative process rather than the final product.
Here’s a good visual that illustrates the differences between art therapy and art class.
How Art Therapy Compares to Talk Therapy
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves discussing things that are bothering you with a professional in order to clarify these issues and put them in perspective.
But, if during talk therapy, you become stuck trying to discuss a particular issue, you may be referred for art therapy.
Art therapy helps you examine and communicate thoughts and emotions that are too complex or confusing to articulate with words alone.
It also provides a safe way to share normal emotions deemed “negative” including anger, sadness, grief, and emotional pain.
Art therapy gives you a voice.
By helping you share feelings that you struggle to talk about, it helps you feel understood and less isolated.
And through this newfound voice, art therapy offers you an opportunity to recognize your strengths.
The Mental Health Benefits of Art
Making art, even at home, can be beneficial for your mental health.
Creating art relieves stress and anxiety.
Research shows that 45 minutes spent creating art can result in a significant decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. (3)
By providing a distraction from your usual thoughts, creating art can help increase concentration.
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The Mental Health Benefits of Art Are for Everyone
Worries about the past and future get pushed aside.
The creative process insists that you pay attention to detail and be more observant.
Making art provides a sense of achievement and a boost in self-esteem.
Art fosters creative thinking to help you generate out-of-the-box solutions to problems.
The Benefits of Art Therapy
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and pressured by an increasingly hectic world.
Art therapy gives you a chance to slow down and explore any issues you may be having.
Art therapy can benefit people facing a wide spectrum of issues including: (4)
- Asperger’s syndrome
- attention disorders
- bereavement and loss
- bipolar disorder
- cognitive impairments
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- eating disorders
- physical disability
- physical illness
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- relationship issues
- substance abuse
By giving them a new way to communicate, art therapy can be particularly beneficial for children and the elderly who otherwise may have trouble expressing themselves.
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Art Therapy for Young People
Children often lack the language skills to speak in detail about the issues they are having or the emotions they are feeling.
Art therapy gives them a way to express and explore their inner selves and provides an outlet for externalizing complex feelings.
Visually communicating and recording experiences and emotions can be a helpful way to stabilize overwhelming emotions and develop coping strategies.
Art therapy can help children feel understood and accepted.
In short, it lets them show what they’ve been unable to express with words. (5)
Here’s a moving video of one young woman’s experience with art therapy and how it helped her cope with depression.
Art Therapy for Older Adults
Art therapy for seniors has been shown to decrease pain, improve motor skills, and alleviate boredom, loneliness, and depression. (6)
Art therapy can help seniors express thoughts and feelings such as confusion or anxiousness to their caregivers and family.
When carried out in a senior living setting, an art program offers seniors a way to enjoy the social aspects of art as well. (7)
Creating art can help them relax as they enjoy experimenting with a variety of artistic media and styles.
It takes their mind off daily concerns by letting them focus on a pleasant activity.
Types of Art Therapy
There are many different media and techniques employed in art therapy.
A therapist will pick a type of art therapy for use with a client based on which she thinks will be most effective.
Here are some of the most common media used in art therapy and the situations for which each is most appropriate.
Paints are fluid and can be difficult to control.
So a therapist may use paints when working with a person who has issues with control and perfectionism.
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Drawing can help you observe and interpret certain feelings and experiences.
Freeform drawing, in particular, can encourage you to follow your intuition, which in turn can help you to develop ideas, problem solve, and improve your sense of self-accomplishment.
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As a tactile media, sculpting gives you a chance to construct an environment, or a symbol of a person, feeling, or event.
Creating a three-dimensional work of art can help to show that situations are multidimensional and can be approached from different points of view.
Creating a collage involves assembling and manipulating existing materials such as photos and magazine images and headlines.
Your therapist may ask you to create a collage of images and phrases that catch your attention, or to create a particular scene using cut-outs.
Creating a collage can be a good stepping stone for anyone who has trouble starting tasks or making decisions.
It can also be a good introduction to art therapy, especially for those who feel they lack artistic skills or associate art with negative feedback from their childhood, or who have anxieties about perfectionism. (8)
There are many ways photography can be used as an art therapy tool.
While it can involve taking photographs, it doesn’t have to.
Simply looking at existing photos, either personal photos or photographs taken by others, can be used to evoke memories, thoughts, and feelings.
As psychologist, author, and art therapist Judy Weiser says, “. . . photo-based techniques can help people get a better picture of their life — one that is worth far more than the proverbial thousand words!” (9)
The softness and texture of textiles can add further comfort and reassurance to the art therapy setting.
This can help build trust between a person and the therapist. (10)
This makes working with textiles ideal for children and seniors who may have limited motor skills.
Writing can help you organize your thoughts and feelings and is a well-recognized way to get the most out of psychotherapy. (11)
Writing in art therapy can be used in conjunction with art journaling, storyboarding, and comics.
What to Expect from an Art Therapy Session
During an initial session, your therapist will spend some time getting to know you.
She will want to know what issues led you to seek help and what you hope to achieve. (12)
Together, you and your therapist will determine how much time should be allotted to making art and to talking so that you get the most from each session.
Next, your therapist will typically guide you through the various art materials available and help you to find a way to begin.
Your art may center around an issue (such as anger) that brought you to the therapist or that you and your therapist identified together.
After your artwork is completed, your therapist will initiate a verbal discussion about how you feel about your creation.
Finding an Art Therapist
You can find an art therapist in the US or Canada via Psychology Today’s database at Find an Art Therapist.
In the UK, you can find an art therapist on the BAAT website.
The Benefits of Art Therapy: The Bottom Line
Art therapy uses the process of creating art to improve mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
It can benefit anyone, from children to seniors, for a wide variety of physical and mental health conditions.
Art therapy is not about becoming a great artist and no special skills are required.
All you need is a willingness to experiment.
During art therapy, the focus is on the process rather than the final product.
The process of creating art is a vehicle for you to find meaning and connection in your life.
About the author
Steve Brown is an art and cognitive behavioural therapist at Priory Hospital Woodbourne and Priory Wellbeing Centre Birmingham. Currently, he works in both group therapies and individual therapy sessions, supporting people with anger issues, anxiety, bereavement, depression, OCD, panic disorders, phobias, PTSD, sleep disorders, stress, work-related stress, and relationship difficulties.