Whether it’s a stroke of a paintbrush or a squiggle of a color pencil, art is, no doubt, fun, creative, and relaxing. But the simple yet powerful act of creating art can mean much more. It can distance people from their own negative thoughts and emotions and even be a release for pent-up stress.
Art therapy uses this creative process – which may include things like drawing, painting, sculpting, collaging, or working with clay – in a variety of clinical and educational settings to help a person explore and resolve any feelings they are struggling with.
This form of therapy can help improve a person’s functionality in daily life, aid mental and emotional growth, and enhance their sense of well-being. Meanwhile, a therapist can gain insights both from the piece of art and from the client’s narrative. In this sense, art can serve as a metaphor for difficult – and maybe even repressed – emotions.
What Goes Into A Session?
An art therapy session may include activities like painting, sculpting, photography, collage work, or drawing. The therapist may ask the patient to paint their emotions or dreams, start a daily art journal, work on a group activity, draw in the sand, or even paint in the dark.
Art therapy is not about making a pretty picture but to create a journey for healing and recovery with the help of a certified art therapist. Your psychologist or doctor will be able to direct you to a reliable art therapist.
On your first visit to the therapist, he or she will ask questions to understand your issues, concerns, and expectations, and will then chart out a therapy structure that will suit you best. Your therapist might also suggest either group or individual therapy sessions (or both) for a fixed number of times a month. The therapist is not meant to be an art educator, but a line of support to encourage you to use art as a means to explore your emotions and develop your self-awareness.1
Benefits of Art Therapy
Stress And Anxiety Buster
Creative art has the capacity to distract us and even calm us down. It is this power that art therapy harnesses in a focused setting.
In one study of a group art therapy session, participants were asked to express their various stresses through drawings. A large piece of paper was used for the entire group, creating a final product with a bunch of scribbles and nonsensical images. As sessions went by, the images became more colorful and free-flowing and participants said that they felt freer and more confident. There was a reduction in their stress levels.2
Many college students suffer from stress, anxiety, and depression related to social pressure, homesickness, grades, motivation, and finances. A study conducted by Lake Superior State University found that coloring on pre-drawn patterns caused significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress in all participants.
The researchers concluded that coloring pre-drawn patterns may be useful as a stress reduction technique for students and makes them feel more confident about exams and school in general.3
Mandala is a coloring tool that combines both art and meditative therapy. Coloring the symmetrical and circular complex mandalas can induce a sort of “meditative state” that calms the mind. This deep engagement with coloring a piece that has spiritual significance (especially in Buddhist and Indian traditions) provides structure and direction to both your strokes and your emotions.4
Well-Being In Cancer Patients
Cancer patients are increasingly turning to alternative and complementary medicine therapies to improve their quality of life and well-being.
One study showed that semi-structured creative art therapy, including drawing, coloring, and painting, reduced anxiety and anger levels in women with breast cancer. The subjects reported feeling more empowered to view their experience with breast cancer as an opportunity for growth and self-development.5
Meanwhile, a survey conducted in the UK reported that 92% of adults with cancer who had used art as therapy found improvements in their communication and ability to cope. This non-verbal form of communication proved a good complement to verbal support and helped give participants new perspectives on their lives.6
Therapy For Children
Children with emotional, developmental, and behavioral issues can benefit from art therapy, too. A pilot study was conducted on a 5-year-old boy with a sensory integration deficiency, which can include conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. Using structured therapy sessions consisting of oil-based clay work, finger-painting, and easel painting, the child was able to regulate both negative and inappropriate behaviors.7
These art techniques were stimulating and helped make his feelings more tactile. For instance, because clay is “squeezable,” it can calm the subject and help them take control of their feelings straight through their hands. Art therapy seems to connect the subconscious and the conscious mind, thus allowing a person to channel their feelings in a positive, effective way.8
Another study done on adolescents focused on a picture of a person with two masks that was drawn by a 13-year old boy. This drawing depicted the two sides of his alcoholic mother and expressed vividly the pain and confusion of growing up with an inconsistent parent. When repressed feelings become too powerful to be put in words – as is often the case with children who have faced abuse, neglect, or trauma – art can be a way to vent in a more tangible way.9
Finding Peace With PTSD
Anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – including refugees and those who have faced domestic violence or survived sexual assault or a natural disaster – can greatly benefit from art therapy as well.
War veterans often return home with acute medical and psychological conditions that can disrupt their lives at home and at work. In such cases, art therapy can prove to be an effective form of treatment and help increase self-esteem and self-worth through the creative process. The art therapist might even combine drawing and collage activities with cognitive-behavioral therapy to help lessen negative mood states.10
Art therapy can be a natural and effective way to bring relief and stability to many. Just try coloring or sketching to get an idea of how calming and therapeutic such an activity can be! With the help of a certified therapist, art can help break through our own mental barriers and help resolve serious emotional difficulties.
|↑1, ↑6||Art Therapy, Cancer Research UK.|
|↑2||Krista Curl, Grand Forks, ND. “Assessing Stress Reduction as a Function of Artistic Creation and Cognitive Focus”. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 25(4) pp. 164-169. 2008.|
|↑3||Crystal R. Drake, H. Russell Searight, Kristina Olson-Pupek. “The influence of Art-Making on Negative Mood states in University Students” .American Journal of Applied Psychology, 2014 2 (3), pp 69-72.DOI: 10.12691/ajap-2-3-3.|
|↑4||Nancy A. Curry and Tim Kasser, Galesburg, IL. “Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety?” Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 22(2) pp. 81-85. 2005.|
|↑5||Puig, Ana, Sang Min Lee, Linda Goodwin, and Peter AD Sherrard. “The efficacy of creative arts therapies to enhance emotional expression, spirituality, and psychological well-being of newly diagnosed Stage I and Stage II breast cancer patients: A preliminary study.” The Arts in Psychotherapy 33, no. 3 (2006): 218-228.|
|↑7||Diane Kearns, West Linn, OR . “Art Therapy with a Child Experiencing Sensory Integration Difficulty”. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 21(2) pp. 95-101 © AATA, Inc. 2004.|
|↑8||Aquiléia Helena de Morais; Simone Roecker; Denise Albieri Jodas Salvagioni; Gabrielle Jacklin Eler. “Significance of clay art therapy for psychiatric patients admitted in a day hospital”. Invest Educ Enferm. 2014;32(1): 128-138.|
|↑9||Shirley Riley. “Art Therapy with Adolescents”. Riley S. Art therapy with adolescents. Western Journal of Medicine. 2001;175(1):54-57.|
|↑10||Art Therapy, posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and Veterans, American Art Therapy Association Inc.|