Benefits of art therapy for mental health
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The benefits art therapy can have on mental and physical health
Art can be a versatile form of therapy that can help people of all ages.
Art therapy has been around since the 1940s. Two pioneers in the field, Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer, used art therapy as a way to help clients tap into their inner thoughts, feelings and experiences through creative expression. Therapist use patients’ free form art expressions to encourage them to talk about the images and to begin to look to themselves for meaning and insight. Combined with talk therapy, it can help people deal with strong emotions, increase self-awareness and self-worth and decrease stress and anxiety. Art therapy can involve a variety of creative expression including drawing, painting, coloring or sculpting, to name a few.
Over the decades, art therapy has been used mainly by mental health practitioners for patients ranging in age from the very young to the elderly, war veterans, prisoners and people with diagnosed mental disorders. By the 20th century, art therapy was a recognized field requiring certification and training in both art and therapy. Art therapy has also moved outside of mental health facilities and into other community settings such as schools, shelters, nursing homes, residential treatment facilities and halfway houses.
In more recent years, researchers have explored the benefits of art therapy for treating a variety of physical health difficulties. Some of their findings show art therapy:
- Helped reduce pain, decrease symptoms of stress and improve quality of life in adult cancer patients.
- Improved ability to deal with pain and other frightening symptoms in children with cancer.
- Reduced stress and anxiety in children with asthma.
- Stimulated mental function in older adults with dementia.
- Indicated a reduction in depression in Parkinson’s patients.
In her book, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, Cathy Malchiodi, a leading expert in today’s art therapy movement, states that, through art therapy “people may find relief from overwhelming emotions, crises or trauma. They may discover insights about themselves, increase their sense of well-being, enrich their daily lives through creative expression, or experience personal transformation.”
Michigan State University Extension recognizes that overall human health encompasses many aspects, and positive health outcomes involve integrated mental, physical, social/emotional and environmental approaches. Art therapy is one approach that has proven to benefit both mental and physical health. If you are interested in learning more about ways MSU Extension can help you be healthier, please visit our website, and check out some of our classes such as Stress Less with Mindfulness and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger.
Art – no matter whether you choose to create it yourself or simply observe and enjoy it – is a relaxing and inspiring activity for many people. However, the particular benefits of artistic expression go much further than relaxation and enjoyment. Studies suggest that art therapy can be very valuable in treating issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even some phobias. It is a great way to express your emotions without words, process complex feelings and find relief. In this article, we will take a closer look at art therapy and discuss its mental health benefits.
What Is Art Therapy?
Art therapy can be defined in many ways, but the simplest way to define it is an application of the visual arts in a therapeutic context. You don’t necessarily have to see a therapist in order to experience some of the therapeutic benefits of artistic expression. There are many simple activities you can try from the comfort of your home such as art journaling, sketching, making collages, sculpting with clay, etc. It doesn’t matter what media you choose. The only thing that matters is that you feel comfortable using it.
However, working with a licensed therapist also has its advantages because a professional can tailor each activity to your own needs. If the activities are done in a group, they are excellent for building healthy connections with other people, which may be very helpful if you are fighting depression. The most important thing is that you should try art therapy only if you want it. Expressing yourself through art can be self-revealing and sometimes equally painful as talking. So, if you still don’t feel ready to try it, that is okay.
Who Should Try Art Therapy?
Anyone who feels overwhelmed or pressured by the hectic world we live in should try art therapy. Creating art will give you a chance to slow down and explore any issues you may be having. Art therapy improves the mental health of people who are dealing with addictions, anxiety, attention disorders, grief and loss, dementia, depression, eating disorders, physical illness, PTSD, trauma, relationship issues and much more.
Since the focus is on the process and not the final product, art therapy is not about becoming a great artist but about finding meaning and connection in your life. All you need for it is a willingness to experiment.
Mental Health Benefits of Art Therapy Activities
Art therapy can be used as a complement to traditional mental health treatment. The aim is to manage behaviors, process feelings, reduce stress and anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
- Self-discovery: Creating art can help you acknowledge and recognize feelings that have been lurking in your subconscious.
- Self-esteem: The process will give you a feeling of self-accomplishment which can be very valuable to improve your self-appreciation and confidence.
- Emotional release: The greatest benefit of art therapy is giving you a healthy outlet for expressing and letting go all your feelings and fears. Complex emotions such as sadness or anger sometimes cannot be expressed with words. When you are unable to express yourself, but you desire emotional release, making art may help you to do it.
- Stress relief: Fighting anxiety, depression or emotional trauma can be very stressful for you both mentally and physically. Creating art can be used to relieve stress and relax your mind and body.
It is very important to know that you don’t have to be a talented artist in order to try art therapy. Human beings are innately creative, and all you need to do to complete an art therapy activity successfully is, to be honest with yourself and your emotions. Once you unleash your creativity, your inner artist will quickly wake up.
Studies also show that creating art stimulates the release of dopamine. This chemical is released when we do something pleasurable, and it basically makes us feel happier. Increased levels of this feel-good neurotransmitter can be very helpful if you are battling anxiety or depression.
Mental health professionals and experts agree that art therapy has many benefits, from boosting your self-esteem, and providing you a safe outlet to relieve your emotions, to giving you a sense of control over your life and helping you to get to know and understand yourself better. During the process of art creation, you will be taking yourself on a journey of self-discovery that will help you eliminate emotional roadblocks, and learn how to communicate with yourself and others.
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Author Bio: Mary Ann Cohen is considered one of the nation’s most successful and respected art dealers with over 35 years of International visual fine art experience. She actively encourages the use of art therapy in her galleries.
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Art therapy is an integrative form of therapy that helps individuals heal through creative expression. It involves the use of different art forms and mediums to aid people in communication and exploring their experiences. Art therapy is used in various settings with individuals, couples, families, and groups to support people of all ages with mental health and physical conditions.
This article discusses the techniques and benefits of art therapy and provides insight on what to consider when seeking this type of therapy.
In art therapy, people can explore and express their thoughts, emotions, experiences, and perceptions of themselves through art. It provides a safe, nonjudgmental, and controlled environment where you can begin to grow and heal.
This type of therapy is often applied in settings like:
- Private practice
- Community-based programs
- Outpatient centers
- Nursing and rehabilitation centers
Art therapy supports people with conditions such as:
Therapists may use and recommend many kinds of media and materials to help patients communicate and express themselves. Music, drama, dance, painting, and writing therapies are types of art therapy.
Some techniques used in art therapy include but are not limited to:
- Playing music
- Drawing or doodling
- Wood, copper, or metalwork
- Crafting, such as embroidery or knitting
Art Therapy Activities
A person can engage in creative activities at home. Examples of activities include:
- Writing about or creating a painting of a safe place
- Drawing a self-portrait
- Painting or drawing your mood
- Playing a song that mirrors your emotions
A review of multiple studies on the effectiveness of art therapy shows that it improves quality of life and a person’s ability to manage psychological symptoms, medical and age-related conditions, daily challenges, stress, and burnout.
Art therapy is individually tailored to your needs and focuses on personal goals and well-being.
Verywell / Jessica Olah
Some benefits of engaging in art therapy include:
- Reduces symptoms of acute and chronic mental health conditions
- Enhances ability to manage acute and chronic medical conditions
- Improves cognitive and sensorimotor functions
- Improves self-esteem and self-awareness
- Cultivates resilience
- Strengthens social skills
- Provides healthy self-expression
- Helps work through stressful and traumatic events
Another review on art therapy noted a study where people with depression saw improvement in social functioning after attending a painting group for three months. The same study also mentions an art therapy program that effectively reduced depression symptoms in people in prison.
These findings suggest that art therapy can benefit various populations by improving well-being.
What to Expect
As with any therapy, a therapist may start by conducting an evaluation, which will include learning about your psychiatric and medical history. Additionally, you and your healthcare provider will discuss concerns and goals, and decide together on a place to begin.
Throughout therapy, the patient and therapist may talk about what they are creating, their process, what comes to mind for them, what they are learning about themselves, and more.
No Art Experience Required
Contrary to popular belief, being artistic isn’t required for art therapy. Instead, a therapist may suggest strategies to help people start examining their experiences.
There are a few things to consider when seeking art therapy:
- Find a professional who has education and training in art therapy. Art therapists have at least a Master’s degree and have met the standards identified by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Credentialed art therapists can be found on their website.
- Some insurance plans may cover art therapy. Checking with an insurance carrier can help locate therapists and determine coverage.
- Upon identifying potential providers, request a consultation. Ask questions about their background and training and how they work with patients.
- Before diving in, make sure it feels like a good fit. Part of this process may include sharing information about concerns to make sure their training aligns with your needs.
Incorporating aspects of dance, drama, music, writing, and more, art therapy supports people in managing mental health and medical conditions. Art therapy can help people learn to communicate effectively, express themselves, and heal. Finding a professional with specialized education and training in art therapy is a great first step.
A Word From Verywell
You don’t have to be naturally artistic to utilize art therapy. Art therapy can provide you with activities to better understand yourself and how you relate to others and the world. It can be a creative way to help you find meaning and heal from daily stress, traumatic events, and conditions affecting your mental and physical well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does art therapy help with trauma?
Art therapy can help people process and heal from trauma. For example, a therapist might suggest integrating art therapy to help you express thoughts and feelings related to trauma. This often gives you the power to examine the trauma safely in a nonjudgmental way.
Does art therapy actually work?
Yes. Research shows that art therapy can help people with mental health or medical conditions to improve their quality of life. Exploring inner experiences can help reduce symptoms and improve personal well-being and relationships. In addition, art therapy works well in conjunction with other forms of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy.
How long does it take to see results from art therapy?
Each person’s experience with art therapy is different. An art therapist will check in with you during sessions to talk about progress. While some may start to feel benefits sooner, others might take more time to explore what comes up for them as they create.