There is no culture on earth without art. Wherever you look, people express themselves through some form of drawing, painting, sculpture, dance, music, or writing. Why is that? Gestalt Therapist Fritz Perlz said, ‘The healthiest form of projection is Art’. Could it be that art goes beyond ‘fun’? That it’s actually a human need, a way to process complex emotions, de-stress, and rejuvenate the brain?
It’s no accident that art therapy has become an acknowledged field of medicine.
What is It?
Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses painting, drawing, modelling, and other art forms to explore emotions, reduce anxiety, increase self-esteem, and diagnose and resolve psychological issues. The focus is on improving physical, mental, and emotional well-being through a creative process, not the finished artwork itself. Verbal communication, especially regarding strong emotions, can be difficult. Art overcomes this problem by enabling communication in another form.
Art therapists are professionals trained in both art and psychotherapy. They usually have a master’s degree and must complete 1,000 supervised hours working with clients. They can lead you through a creative process in a way that helps you to understand and address specific emotional or mental health challenges. The therapist may choose certain art materials or projects for particular issues or individual needs.
This type of therapy is available to all ages and can be used with individuals, couples, families, or groups.
Of course, you don’t have to see a professional art therapist to experience the good effects of creative activities. Kids do it instinctively: drawing pictures in the sand, rearranging their food, making mud pies, scribbling on the walls. If they can do it, so can adults.
But how does art help us?
“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” —Pablo Picasso
Why Should I Do It?
The American Art Therapy Association claims that art therapy can be an effective treatment for individuals who have experienced depression, grief, trauma, medical illness, addiction, and social difficulties. Is there any evidence of this? Why, yes, there is! Let’s look at art’s effect on intellect, happiness, and healing.
A 2010 study of the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Learning Through the Arts program showed that students were more likely to be intentional in their decision making, follow through on tasks, be deliberate in their approaches, and approach accidents and difficulties with patience. They also demonstrated resourcefulness and a greater knowledge of art materials.
Art encourages ‘outside-of-the-box’ thinking, which stimulates neuron growth. The concept of ‘right-brain thinking’ is false, as creative thinking requires the use of both hemispheres of the brain. Exercising builds muscle, and the same is true of the brain. The more areas of it you use, the stronger they get.
Engaging in new activities builds new synaptic connections and increases neural activity. Art has massive scope for novel activities, and the more of them you try, the smarter you’ll get.
A 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry showed that crafting and artistic activities could reduce your chances of developing mild cognitive impairment.
Art can even help to ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Dr. Arnold Bresky claims to have achieved a 70% success rate for improving the memories of his Alzheimer’s and dementia patients by helping them to paint and draw. This is in line with some case studies and several small trials which suggest that art therapy engages attention, provides pleasure, and improves neuropsychiatric symptoms, social behavior, and self-esteem.
A study of over 10,000 students found that a one-hour trip to an art museum increased critical thinking skills, empathy, and tolerance for people different from themselves.
A study of 28 retired adults found that art activities reduced distress, increased self-reflection and self-awareness, altered behaviour and thinking patterns, and also normalised heart rate, blood pressure, and even cortisol levels. That’s a major impact! Psychological resilience and resistance to stress also increased.
In a study published in The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 3,500 knitters were surveyed. 81% of respondents with depression reported feeling happy after knitting. More than half reported feeling “very happy.” This reminds me of a TED talk I saw by Andrew Solomon where he mentions a lady with depression who had tried therapy and medication, but felt she had finally found a solution: ‘making little things from yarn’.
As it turns out, novelty triggers dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter behind motivation and neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons. Dopamine also uplifts mood. So, the more you vary your art and craft activities, the more dopamine and motivation you’ll have.
Creative activities help you to enter the ‘flow’ state, a phenomenon first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is a state where you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you stop noticing the passing of time or worrying about anything else. Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown that the flow state is crucial for happiness. It is a time when your entire attention is on the activity at hand; you don’t feel hunger, fatigue, anxiety, or pain.
In a 2007 paper, occupational therapist Victoria Schindler and co-author Sharon Gutman suggest using drawing, painting, knitting, and similar activities to elicit the flow state to regulate strong emotions and prevent irrational thoughts. They found that these types of purposeful and meaningful activities could counter the effects of stress-related diseases and reduce the risk for dementia, as well as promote overall health and well-being.
One study from researchers Chloe Bell and Steven Robbins showed that participants who were given either paper, coloured pencils, charcoal pencils, and oil pastels, as well as 20 minutes to create art experienced significant reductions in negative mood and anxiety.
Psychologist Carl Jung noted decades ago that drawing mandalas calmed patients and helped them process thoughts and emotions. This was recently confirmed by researchers Renee van der Vennet and Susan Serice who found that individuals who coloured in mandalas experienced reduced anxiety levels. This is good news for anyone who is frightened of ‘creating’ art and feels more comfortable with a colouring book.
Neurobiologist Professor Semir Zeki discovered just viewing art triggers dopamine, giving the same pleasure associated with falling in love, and can even reduce the suffering of hospital patients and speed up their recovery.
In a report that analysed the findings of over 100 studies done on the effects of art on physical and psychological health The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature, researchers observed that Visual arts helped chronic illness, cancer, hemodialysis, and trauma patients:
- fill occupational voids
- forget about their illness
- become more spontaneous
- express grief
- decrease negative emotions and increase positive ones
- have improved healing and well-being
- reduce stress and anxiety
- strengthen their sense of purpose, self-worth, and social identity
At Shands Healthcare in Florida, the Arts in Medicine program (AIM) is helping patients cope with serious illnesses, recover faster, and feel happier. Paid artists-in-residence and volunteers work with doctors and nurses to involve patients in creative activities like painting, writing, and singing.
Dr. John Graham-Pole, who was a pediatric oncologist at Shands prior to his retirement, wrote poetry to help him come to terms with mortality and the other challenges of working in a hospital. This led him to develop informal art workshops with a fellow artist. The program has grown to include classes for medical students, nurses, doctors, and the visiting family members of patients. Results include reduced anxiety, shorter hospital stays, diminished feelings of pain, and lower blood pressure. Patients also recover a sense of identity and are able to see themselves as more than just an illness or diagnosis.
The memories and feelings associated with strong emotional experiences like trauma and addiction are difficult to express in words. “People’s ability to find language shuts down when processing trauma so image making and play are easier forms of expression,” says Rebecca Bloom, art therapist and owner of Seattle-based Bloom Counseling. “We process trauma in a visual manner. Think about a traumatic incident that happened to you; you probably remember it visually as opposed to describing it in words.”
Some are uncomfortable with talking to a stranger about their experiences. Art therapy removes this barrier, giving the patient an opportunity to focus their feelings on the artwork, which acts as a mediator between the patient and the therapist.
The Foundation for Art and Healing has recorded many cases of trauma victims, chronically and terminally ill patients, and the elderly who have benefited from art therapy, as can be seen in this video.
However, you don’t have to see an art therapist to reap the benefits of art therapy. A study conducted with those suffering from PTSD discovered that participants who drew mandalas using symbols that represented their feelings or emotions related to their trauma for 20 minutes at a time for three days in a row showed a decrease in symptoms of trauma at a one-month follow-up.
Who Needs Art Therapy?
Everyone! But especially consider it if you have:
- mental health problems (depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorder, brain injury, etc.)
- chronic illness
- serious or terminal illness
- suffered trauma or loss (even if you don’t think you have PTSD)
- learning disabilities
- problems at work/school/home
- feelings of having lost your identity/not understanding yourself
- the desire to better understand your own thoughts and feelings
Using pastels to process emotion
How To Do It
It’s really quite simple. Just pick up a pen and doodle. Or pull out your pastels, paint, pencils, playdough, or whatever art and craft supplies you have stashed away and go for it.
Pick the medium that will work best for how you are feeling. Art therapists are trained to do this by assessing your mood, the issues you are facing, and other factors. If you are working alone, think about what you want to achieve. Watercolour paint can be difficult to control, so it might work for you when you want to work out anger or frustration by creating a mess. Feel like screaming? Draw a scream. Or make one out of clay. Trying to make sense of conflicting thoughts? Maybe a collage is the way to go. Struggling with anxiety and want to get lost in the flow state? How about knitting or crocheting? What if you feel disconnected from your sense of identity? Making a mask may be a good option. Or using coloured pencils or tools that are dry and controlled.
Don’t be shy or worry that people will think you’re silly. It’s not about talent or creating a masterpiece to put on your wall or sell for thousands. It’s about the process. No one ever has to see what you make and you don’t need to spend time trying to interpret or make sense of it. It’s about the PROCESS.
Experiment with different forms and tools and pick what works for you in each situation. What helps you express anger? Sadness? Grief? Frustration? What makes you feel calm? What gives you a sense of accomplishment and self-worth?
There are hundreds of art therapy activities you could try. You can find an exhaustive list with links to each activity here: 100 Art Therapy Exercises
Here are a few suggestions I liked:
- Make temporary art using sand, chalk or water. This is a great way to get started if you’re feeling nervous about your creative ability. Use water to draw designs on a table or the ground, then wipe it away. No one will ever see what you did. The act of drawing is what counts.
- Draw your emotions. I like to use pastels for this because they’re nice and sticky and thick and vivid. I plan to draw some screams soon.
- Keep a picture journal. Record your daily feelings, mood, and experiences in sketches, doodles, or collages.
- Design a postcard or write a letter you will never send. This is best for situations where you are upset with someone but it is not constructive or possible to confront them. Get what you would want to say to them out on paper or card.
- Collage your worries or fears.
- Create a family sculpture out of clay.
- Make a diorama of a traumatic event or loss you have experienced.
- Scribble or paint without any particular picture in mind. Just let the lines and colours flow. Add background music for inspiration.
- Finger paint. Getting messy is a great way to de-stress. Full-body painting may require a studio, though. But don’t let that hold you back.
- Draw with your eyes closed. This gets your sense of touch involved.
- Colour in. Only use colours that calm you.
- Make a collage of calming things.
- Draw/Paint/Collage/Photograph your vision of a perfect day or something that makes you happy, or ALL the things that make you happy.
- Knit/Sew/Crochet a stuffed animal or other object you can cuddle.
- Use only soft or comforting objects to create an artwork.
- Draw a comic strip of a funny moment in your life. Reflect on the good times.
- Create a past, present, and future self-portrait. You can use any medium: clay, paint, pen, sand, disposable nappies, paperclips, shrubberies, etc.
- Make a portrait bag. Fill a bag with things that represent who you are. You could also use the objects to create a collage or sculpture. I like the idea of decorating the outside with your fingerprints.
- Draw yourself as a superhero, especially if you are fighting an illness or other challenge.
- Make a mask. Decorate the outside (the face you show to the world) and the inside (the real you).
- Make a visual timeline of the most significant events in your life.
- Draw the different sides of yourself, all of them. The kind, the sad, the angry, the caring, the cheeky, the hungry, the irritable…every aspect of your personality.
- Make a plaster cast of your hand or foot. Once it’s dry, write all the good things you can do with it onto the cast.
Don’t limit yourself when it comes to materials. There are so many options – here’s a word cloud of them!
Art Materials and Mediums
“Creativity takes courage” – Henri Matisse
Don’t let fear hold you back. You can do so much good to yourself by being willing to experiment with different art forms. Colour in if you’re scared of a blank page. Then graduate to free-form colouring. Then try some paint. Then pop into the local craft shop and see what appeals to you.
The world is your art-ster.