Visual arts, whether you’re engaging in them or just appreciating them, can bring enjoyment and encouragement, but expressing oneself through art can also have physical and mental health benefits.
Art therapy, a type of psychotherapy, helps provide a way to express emotions and experiences not easily expressed in words. It is not about the final product; it is about healing through the process of making art.
Research has identified a range of physical and mental health benefits of art and art therapy. For example, a study of cancer patients found that four hour-long guided, creative art (drawing) therapy exercises improved participants’ psychological well-being by decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions.
The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as an integrative mental health and human services profession that helps individuals through active art-making and creative process in a psychotherapy setting. Art therapy is used to reduce conflicts and distress, improve cognitive functions, foster self-esteem, and build emotional resilience and social skills. It engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal communication, according to the association.
Art therapists are master-level clinicians who work with people of all ages across many practice settings, such as hospitals, schools, private practice, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities and crisis centers.
One six-month study of caregivers of people with long-term illness found that regularly taking part in a creative arts activity reduced stress, decreased anxiety and increased positive emotions among the caregivers. In hospital settings, art therapy has been found to reduce the need for sleep medication and to reduce the length of hospital stays.
The authors of a review of research, Heather Stuckey, D.Ed., and Jeremy Nobel, M.D., M.P.H., concluded that use of arts in healing “complements the biomedical view by focusing on not only sickness and symptoms themselves but the holistic nature of the person.”
A study of women with cancer engaging in different types of visual arts, including card-making, collage, pottery, watercolor and acrylics found four types of benefits: it helped them focus on positive life experiences and reduce focus on their cancer; enhanced their self-worth and identity through challenge and achievement; allowed them to maintain a social identity not related to cancer; and allowed them to express their feelings, especially related to chemotherapy. Another study of women with cancer found reduced emotional distress and decrease in physical symptoms with the use of art therapy.
A review of research over the past decade looking at art therapy for people with serious mental illness found it to be a “potentially low-risk and high benefit intervention to minimize symptoms and maximize functioning in individuals living with serious mental illness.”
Other creative pursuits, such as music, writing, dance and play acting, have also demonstrated emotional and mental health benefits.
Whether you are struggling with a mental health concern or just looking to cope with everyday stresses, consider adding some creative arts into your day. You can find a trained art therapist through the American Art Therapy Association, Art Therapist Locator or through an online directory at the Art Therapy Credentials Board.
References and Resources
Stuckey, HL and Nobel J. The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Public Health. 2010, 100(2):254-263.American Art Therapy AssociationArt Therapy Credentials Board