The Mental Health Benefits of Art Are for Everyone

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Last updated June 19, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Creating art relieves stress, encourages creative thinking, increases brain plasticity, and imparts other mental health benefits. And anyone can do art.

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
— Pablo Picasso

There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes art and its usefulness as a therapeutic tool. 

Some think that you have to create paintings or sculptures to be considered a real artist.

Others believe that you are either born with artistic talent or not.

Many who don’t consider themselves to be gifted artistically feel that there is no point in creating art since they won’t be satisfied with the results.

Another myth is that you have to work with an art therapist to experience any emotional benefits from creating art.

But we are all born with an innate desire to express ourselves and art encompasses a wider range of activities than you might imagine.

Here are some of the best ways in which creative expression can benefit mental health — making you a happier, healthier person.

How Creating Art Relieves Stress

Activities like painting, sculpting, drawing, and photography are relaxing and rewarding hobbies that can lower your stress level and leave you feeling mentally clear and calm.

Creating art provides a distraction, giving the brain a break from its usual thoughts.

The average person has roughly 70,000 thoughts per day and 90% of them are exactly the same, day in and day out. 

When you are totally immersed in a creative endeavor, you may find yourself in what’s known as “the zone” or the state of “flow.”

This meditative-like state focuses your mind and temporarily pushes aside all your worries.

Hundreds of years ago, Leonardo da Vinci noted that:

“Painting embraces all the ten functions of the eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest.”

Creating art trains you to concentrate on details and pay more attention to your environment.

In this way, it acts like meditation.

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A popular art trend for stress relief is adult coloring books.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
The Benefits of Coloring for Stress Relief

This idea was first popularized in France, a country known for its high use of prescription psychiatric drugs, including antidepressants, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. 

Some coloring books are created with stress relief in mind and have become a recognized form of artistic expression for adults.

Many art therapists are supportive of the movement and believe that coloring can act as a gateway to reach more people who can benefit from art therapy. 

For instance, this has worked to gently transition military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into art therapy. 

Art Encourages Creative Thinking

Lawrence Katz, PhD, is an internationally recognized pioneer in neuron regeneration research and author of Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness.

He found that mental decline was due mainly to the loss of communication between brain cells, not from the death of brain cells themselves. 

Dr. Katz coined the phrase “neurobics” to describe brain exercises that use the senses in new and novel ways; creating art certainly fits this definition.

Art enhances problem-solving skills.

It encourages creative thinking and lets you come up with your own unique solutions.

Out-of-the-box thinking also stimulates the brain to grow new neurons.

Creative Thinking: A Whole-Brain Activity

Contrary to popular belief, creative thinking does not mean using just the right side of your brain.

What it does, in fact, is to get both hemispheres of your brain to communicate with each other

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The concept of left-brain, right-brain dominance never had a strong foundation in science in the first place, and now this theory has been debunked.

It also erroneously promotes the stereotype that you can’t be both analytical and creative, which is obviously not true.

Some of the greatest minds of all time, including Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein, were simultaneously analytical and creative.

The most complicated functions that humans perform, such as thinking creatively, learning a language, or playing or listening to music, all require whole-brain thinking

How Art Boosts Self-Esteem and Sense of Accomplishment

You may stick your kids’ artwork on the refrigerator door to boost their self-esteem.

Displaying your latest work of art can instill the same feeling in you.

Creating art increases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine has been called the “motivation molecule,” since it boosts drive, focus, and concentration.

It enables you to plan ahead and resist impulses so that you can achieve your goals.

A burst of dopamine gives you that “I did it!” feeling when you accomplish what you set out to do.

Dopamine stimulates the creation of new neurons and prepares the brain for learning. 

" There is no need to feel intimidated about creating art since it’s the process of creating that provides the benefits, not the quality of the results.

You don’t have to produce fine art to reap the benefits of the creative process.

Crafting hobbies of all kinds — knitting, quilting, sewing, calligraphy, woodworking, gardening, and do-it-yourself home repair — increase dopamine, ward off depression, and protect the brain from aging.

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How Art Affects the Brain: Increased Connectivity and Plasticity

Every time you engage in a new or complex activity, your brain creates new connections between brain cells.

Your brain’s ability to grow connections and change throughout your lifetime is called brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity.

Creating art stimulates communication between various parts of the brain.

In this way, creating art has been proven to increase psychological and emotional resilience, making you better equipped to deal with stress

It’s thought that intelligence depends more on the number of brain connections than the size of the brain. 

Albert Einstein’s brain was on the small side of average, but it did have unusually high connectivity between the right and left hemispheres. 

How Art Makes Children Better Students for Life

Educators and parents alike have long suspected that music and arts programs make for overall better students.

Now, using neuroimaging, science can back this up.

Children with musical training perform better in math, language, and reading

Early music lessons enhance brain plasticity and connectivity

There’s evidence that the brain-enhancing benefits of music lessons received during childhood can follow through into adulthood, lasting a lifetime

The benefits of visual arts programs are equally impressive.

Art lessons increase brain plasticity, fluid intelligence, IQ, and attention.

They improve overall behav­ior and reduce impulsiveness. 

Unfortunately, educational budget cuts in the US have slashed music and arts programs in recent years.

Considering the lifelong benefits of art training, many educators believe this to be a short-sighted policy.

Viewing Art Increases Empathy, Tolerance, and Feelings of Love

A study of over 10,000 students found that a one-hour trip to an art museum changed the way they thought and felt.

Students who visited a museum not only showed improved critical thinking skills but also exhibited greater empathy regarding how people lived in the past and expressed greater tolerance towards people different than themselves. 

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Professor Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at the University College London, discovered that simply the act of viewing art gives pleasure, much like falling in love.

Brain scans revealed that looking at works of art triggers a surge of dopamine in the same area of the brain that registers romantic love. 

For most of us, it’s not possible to visit an art museum every day, but you can easily get a daily dose of culture with the Daily Art app.

This free app shares an interesting background story on one piece of fine art each day.

Another excellent option is Google Arts & Culture, a curated digital archive of great artworks from over 2,000 museums around the world.

Creating Art Improves Quality of Life for Dementia Patients

Art enhances cognitive abilities and memory, even for people with serious brain disorders.

Dementia is mainly thought of as a memory loss problem, but patients also experience other symptoms, such as agitation, aggression, anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Drug treatment for dementia symptoms is generally not very successful.

When dementia patients are encouraged to create visual art, they derive obvious pleasure from it.

It improves their social behavior and self-esteem and reduces psychiatric symptoms

Art Eases the Burden of Chronic Health Conditions

Millions of people deal with chronic health conditions and the stress, anxiety, and depression that accompany them.

In The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature, researchers analyzed and reported on the findings of over 100 studies conducted on the benefits of art for physical and psychological health.

This meta-study found that music and visual arts affected patients in these positive ways:

  • Art allowed patients to forget about their illness for a while, letting them focus on positive life experiences.
  • Creating art enabled them to maintain the identity of who they were before they became sick.
  • Creative pursuits gave them a sense of achievement.
  • The creation process helped patients express their feelings.
  • Art creation reduced stress by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

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John Graham-Pole, MD, is a retired pediatric oncologist who wrote poetry to process some of the grim realities he faced working at a hospital. 

He developed informal art workshops to help both patients and staff cope better, through writing and painting, with whatever was happening to them.

Graham-Pole believes that:

“Art is a social determinant of our health. It doesn’t cure a particular disease, but benefits whatever ails you.”

Art Exercises to Do at Home

Albert Einstein said:

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

If it’s been a long time since you had fun expressing yourself creatively, you might not know how to begin.

If that’s the case, check out this list of 100 Art Therapy Exercises.

You don’t have to have any particular artistic skills to get started.

Some of these exercises are craft-like, such as making a dreamcatcher.

If you are more into “cut and paste” than drawing or painting, there are several ideas for creating collages.

For those who are more analytical, you can start by creating a mind map to visualize your thoughts or feelings.

If you aren’t ready to commit to something more permanent, use sand, chalk, or water to create temporary art.

Buddhists create intricate sand mandalas — circular designs with concentric shapes — that are intentionally swept or washed away upon completion.

painting a mandala
Painting a mandala.

These creations are a meditation on life’s impermanence.

Keep in mind as you create that using art therapeutically is about the journey, not the end product.

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When to Consider Art Therapy

Anyone can benefit from creating art, but sometimes it’s best to seek professional care for help with your problems.

Art therapists are healthcare professionals with backgrounds in both art and psychology or counseling.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists usually have a master’s degree and have completed at least 600 hours of supervised internship.

Art therapy can be used to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

You might consider art therapy if you are experiencing any of these situations:

  • high-stress occupation
  • mental health disorder
  • learning disability
  • brain injury
  • chronic illness

Art therapy is also recommended for children or teens who are having personal problems or trouble in school.

Art used as therapy has successfully helped people with:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • addictions
  • PTSD
  • chronic pain
  • cancer
  • high blood pressure
  • bipolar disorder
  • dementia
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • other serious physical and mental health conditions

If you feel that you could benefit from art therapy, you can find an art therapist in your area or one that offers online therapy using Psychology Today’s search tool or the American Art Therapy Association’s art therapist locator.

Watch the Video

Check out this YouTube video, Can Art Be Medicine?, that shows some real-life examples of how art is used as therapy.

Particularly moving is the story of a US Marine with PTSD who used art therapy to express his pain in a safe way and lift his emotional burden in a way that nothing else had been able to do.

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