Creating art relieves stress, encourages creative thinking, increases brain plasticity, and provides many other mental health benefits. And anyone can do it.
“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
— Pablo Picasso
There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about art.
Some think you have to be creating paintings or sculptures to be considered a real artist.
Others believe that you are either born with talent — or not.
Many are afraid that since they aren’t very good at something, there is no point and they won’t get any benefit from doing it.
Another myth is that you have to work with an art therapist to get any therapeutic benefit from doing art.
But we are all born with an innate desire to express ourselves and art encompasses a wider range of activities than you may have ever imagined.
Here are some of the best ways creative expression can benefit your brain and mental health to make you a happier, healthier person.
Creating Art Relieves Stress
Activities like painting, sculpting, drawing, and photography are relaxing and rewarding hobbies that can lower your stress levels and leave you feeling mentally clear and calm. (1)
Creating art provides a distraction, giving your brain a break from your usual thoughts.
The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day and 95% of them are exactly the same day in, day out! (2)
When you get totally immersed in a creative endeavor, you may find yourself in what’s known as “the zone” or in a state of “flow.”
This meditative-like state focuses your mind and temporarily pushes aside all your worries.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “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.
A popular art trend for stress relief is adult coloring books.
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This idea was first popularized in France, a country that’s number one in per capita consumption of antidepressants, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. (3)
Some coloring books are created with stress relief in mind and have become an acceptable adult form of artistic expression.
So far, this has worked to gently transition veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) into art therapy. (6)
Art Encourages Creative Thinking
Dr. Lawrence Katz 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. (7)
Dr. Katz coined the phrase “neurobics” to describe brain exercises that use your senses in new and novel ways, and creating art certainly fits this definition.
Art enhances problem-solving skills. (8)
Unlike math, there is no one correct answer in art.
Art encourages creative thinking and lets you come up with your own unique solutions.
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Out-of-the-box thinking also stimulates your brain to grow new neurons.
Contrary to popular belief, creative thinking does not mean using the right side of your brain.
It involves getting both hemispheres of your brain communicating with each other. (9)
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 totally debunked.
Learn more —
How To Be More Creative: 10 Surprising Ways
Art Boosts Self-Esteem, Provides a Sense of Accomplishment
You may stick your kids’ artwork on the refrigerator door to boost their self-esteem.
Hanging your latest work of art on the wall can instill in you the same feeling.
Creating art increases the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine has been called the “motivation molecule.”
It boosts drive, focus, and concentration.
It enables you to plan ahead and resist impulses so you can achieve your goals.
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It gives you that “I did it!” lift when you accomplish what you set out to do.
Dopamine stimulates the creation of new neurons and prepares your brain for learning. (12)
You don’t have to produce fine art.
Crafting hobbies of all kinds — knitting, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography, woodworking, gardening, and do-it-yourself home repair — increase dopamine, ward off depression, and protect the brain from aging. (13, 14)
Making Art Increases Brain 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 resilience and resistance to stress. (15)
It’s thought that intelligence depends more on the number of brain connections than the size of your brain. (16)
Children Who Receive Art Lessons Are Better Students for Life
Educators and parents alike have long suspected that music and arts programs make better students.
Now, with neuroimaging, science can finally back this up.
Learn more —
How Music Affects the Brain
The benefits of visual art programs are equally impressive.
Art lessons increase brain plasticity, fluid intelligence, IQ, and attention.
They improve overall behavior and reduce impulsiveness. (23)
Unfortunately, budgetary cuts have slashed music and arts programs across the country.
Considering the lifelong benefits of art training, this is a short-sighted policy.
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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 increased critical thinking skills, they also exhibited greater empathy towards how people lived in the past and expressed greater tolerance towards people different than themselves. (24)
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 trigger a surge of dopamine into the same area of the brain that registers romantic love. (25)
For most of us, it’s not possible to visit an art museum every day, but you can get your daily dose of culture with the Daily Art app.
This app shares an interesting background story on one painting masterpiece each day.
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 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.
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It improves their social behavior and self-esteem, and reduces psychiatric symptoms. (26)
Dr. Arnold Bresky is a physician who has created a program called the “Brain Tune Up” that utilizes art therapy for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. (27)
He has seen a 70% success rate in improvement of his patients’ memories.
By drawing and painting, patients are increasing connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and growing new brain cells.
Learn more —
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Art Eases the Burden of Chronic Health Conditions
Millions of people deal with chronic health conditions and the stress, anxiety, and depression that accompanies 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 done on the effects of art on physical and psychological health.
They found that music and visual arts affected patients in these positive ways:
- Art let patients forget about their illness for a while, allowing them to focus on positive life experiences.
- Creating art enabled them to maintain the identity of who they were before they got sick.
- Creative pursuits gave them a sense of achievement.
- Art helped them express their feelings.
- Art reduced stress by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Dr. John Graham-Pole is a retired pediatric oncologist who wrote poetry to process some of the grim realities he faced working at a hospital. (28)
He developed informal art workshops to help both patients and staff cope better with whatever was happening to them through writing and painting.
He 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 that “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
If it’s been a long time since you had fun expressing yourself creatively, you might not know where 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.
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Some of these exercises are craft-like, such as making a dream catcher.
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 don’t want to share what you are doing with others, 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.
These creations are a meditation on life’s impermanence.
Remember as you are creating that using art therapeutically is about the journey — not about the end product.
When to Consider Art Therapy
Anyone can benefit from creating art, but sometimes it’s best to seek the help of a professional.
Art therapists are health care professionals with backgrounds in both art and psychology or counseling.
They usually have a masters degree and must complete 1,000 supervised hours working with clients.
Art therapy can be used to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
You should consider art therapy if you are experiencing any of these situations: (29)
- high stress occupation
- mental health disorder
- learning disability
- brain injury
- chronic illness
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The Benefits of Art Therapy for Mental Health
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 and Alzheimer’s, and other serious health and mental health conditions.
If you feel you could benefit from art therapy, you can find an art therapist in your area using Psychology Today’s search tool.
The video below, Can Art Be Medicine?, shows some real-life examples of how art is being used as therapy.
Particularly moving is the story of a Marine with PTSD who used art therapy to express his pain in a safe way and help lift the burden in a way that nothing else had been able to do.
Mental Health Benefits of Art: The Bottom Line
It’s been said that art benefits whatever ails you.
Creating art can be beneficial throughout all stages of life.
It can help children be better students and improve quality of life for seniors.
It relieves stress, encourages creative thinking, boosts self-esteem, and provides a sense of accomplishment.
It can even change the structure and function of your brain.
Don’t put off exploring your artistic side any longer!