Art Therapy Harnesses the Healing Power of Your Creativity

Photo: Stocksy / MaaHoo Studio
Maybe the margin of every notebook you’ve ever owned (yup, even the one for “notes” at work) is filled with doodles you’ve been honing since second grade. Maybe you can’t draw a straight line. Either way, if you’re coping with trauma or are just looking for a science-backed way to relieve stress, art therapy could be another strategy to help you process what you're going through.

This isn't a usual art class where you learn a new technique or draw from a model. Trained therapists use a variety of materials—paper, pen, watercolors, clay—to help people express their thoughts and emotions. More than the artwork itself, “art therapy is about the process, and using art to explore and learn more about yourself,” says Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, ACTP, an art therapist in private practice for 20 years. It's something that has a pretty considerable appeal—in a recent survey conducted by Saatchi Art on art and wellness, 88 percent of respondents said they would use or consider using art therapy as part of their own self-care.

But what is art therapy, exactly? Experts share everything you need to know about the important mental health practice.

Who could benefit from art therapy?

Art was first used therapeutically in psychiatric wards and hospitals in the 1940s, often for people who had a hard time expressing themselves verbally. The American Art Therapists Association (AATA) was founded in 1969, with the Art Therapy Credentials Board created in 1993 to manage the official testing and credentialing of art therapists.

Anyone can benefit from art therapy because it can help with feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, and depression. “It can sometimes be less threatening or anxiety-provoking to share experiences, thoughts, and emotions through art than talking,” says Miller. “Often times when patients come to art therapy, they come for finding a way to express their emotions that they have a difficult time expressing in words.”

Art therapists also say art therapy can help relieve anxiety, boost energy, and increase self-esteem, resiliency, and mindfulness. “It’s a safe environment to problem-solve and experiment. It really empowers the client and enhances self-awareness and insight into what they’re going through,” Miller says.

It can be especially helpful for anyone coping with divorce, chronic disease, or bereavement, because the part of the brain involved in traumatic experiences also processes sensory inputs like smell, taste, image, and sound. “As a sensory-based mode of treatment, art can tap into that part of the brain easier than words and language,” she says. Art therapy can also be more helpful than talk therapy for people with cognitive issues like dementia or Alzheimer's, which affect the part of the brain associated with language.

What do you do in a session?

At a person's first art therapy session, they'll usually answer a few questions about themselves to help the art therapist choose materials and directives. Water colors, for example, can have a very calming effect. “There’s a neurological response when someone uses fluid materials that turns off and quiets the thought process and worries,” says Melinda Hallenbeck-Kostecky, MS, ATR-BC, an art therapist at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. On the other end of the spectrum, lines and patterns initiate a meditative rhythm. “It allows people to turn off their inner critic and move in a direction that they feel rather than putting too much thought into it,” says Hallenbeck-Kostecky.

Art therapy sessions with Miller often begin with what she calls an emotional X-ray. Clients fill in an outline of a human body with the colors, symbols, shapes, and objects that represent what they’re going through—from back pain to sadness about divorce or death. “When you have that visual perception, it can bring awareness to how your body and emotions interact and what you’re experiencing,” says Miller.

At the beginning, it’s normal for patients to feel nervous or overly critical of what they create. But art therapists don’t judge, analyze, or interpret a patient’s artwork. “A myth of art therapist is that we can look at a piece of art and know what a person is thinking or feeing,” says Hallenbeck-Kostecky. Instead, art therapists help their clients reflect on the experience. “It’s more about being a witness and being present for the patient to explore. I look at it with curious eyes, and I may have questions, but I give them space when they identify the individual meaning of their artwork, so they own it,” she says.

In some people, art can “open up” something potentially triggering or upsetting, says Miller, but art therapists are trained to make the process safe. They always assess whether patients need to be referred out to other mental health practitioners for safety reasons, including suicidal thoughts, says Miller.

Who performs art therapy?

Art therapists should have a master’s or a doctorate in art therapy. Only someone who’s been credited by the Art Therapy Credentials Board, with an “ATR-BC” at the end of their name, is certified to practice art therapy. (So if you're looking up a person and they don't have those certifications, it's probably wise to find another qualified art therapist.) But art therapy isn't totally isolated from the more mainstream mental healthcare world; Miller says art therapists often work alongside other mental health professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers.

Does it really work?

Yes—and its benefits are backed by a strong body of research. Some research has found that art therapy may help people who’ve suffered from strokes, kids with autism spectrum disorder, and even refugee children. A 2018 review of research on art therapy found it helped people coping with major medical conditions (like cancer, heart failure, obesity, and HIV/AIDS) and older people with depression and dementia to improve their emotions and perceived symptoms. The review even found evidence that art therapy helped people without any diagnosed medical or mental health conditions to cope with stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Hallenbeck-Kostecky says she often sees the physical tension in cancer patients’ bodies soften as they express their thoughts, emotions, and experiences through art. “What’s most rewarding is hearing them say ‘I made this, this is me, this is how I feel,’” she says.

If you’d like to use art therapeutically at home, Miller recommends spontaneous drawing in a sketchbook to express how you’re feeling at the moment through color, lines, or shapes. Hallenbeck-Kostecky adds that any creative activity can be therapeutic—whether it’s listening to music, playing an instrument, coloring, drawing, or painting. But if you still feel like you can’t work through your feelings on your own, reach out to a mental healthcare provider for help.

Looking for other ways to help manage your stress and anxiety? Check out our 30-Day Mental Wellness Challenge. And here's the surefire sign that you should go to therapy, according to experts.

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