Using Art Therapy for Better Mental and Emotional Well-Being

In all cultures, in every aspect of life, there is art. From graffiti on a railroad car and musical street buskers to legendary novels and prestigious galleries of ancient artifacts, human beings express themselves in myriad creative ways. Often, creating art is exactly what we need to do to feel emotionally fulfilled and mentally clear.

How Does Art Help You?

Can anyone be artistic? On the podcast, “How Researchers Changed the World,” associate professor Girija Kaima said, “If we define being an artist as being able to express yourself visually, in music, in dance, in drama, in poetry, I would say all of us are. Everyone is an artist, and everyone is capable of self-expression.”

Kaima, an art therapist, is also an associate professor in the PhD program in Creative Arts Therapies at the Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions in Philadelphia, PA. Additionally, as head of the Health, Arts, Learning and Evaluation (HALE) research lab, her team members examine the “physiological and psychological health outcomes of visual and narrative self-expression.”

Some of their more unique findings involve the successful use of art therapy for military service members with PTSD and traumatic brain injury, as well as mitigating stress among patients with cancer and their caregivers. They also studied the sharp reduction of other study participants’ cortisol levels—the stress hormone—after just a 45-minute art therapy session.

Other researchers are optimistic about the artistic approach as well. For example, analysis of relatable study data so far concluded that for depression, anxiety, and cognitive disorders in particular, “art therapy can not only be served as an [sic] useful therapeutic method to assist patients to open up and share their feelings, views, and experiences, but also as an auxiliary treatment for diagnosing diseases to help medical specialists obtain complementary information different from conventional tests.”
Here are some other ways art and art therapy help improve our well-being:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Enhance self-awareness and the development of healthier self-esteem
  • Elevate mood
  • Broaden social skills
  • Experience emotions with a safe, nonjudgmental approach
  • Achieve a better understanding and resolution of emotional conflicts

This quote by Georgia O’Keeffe exemplifies a powerful point about making art: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.”

What a statement: making your unknown known by accessing thoughts and feelings and promoting freedom of expression essential to individual progress. Using our bodies and all of our senses to work more from the heart rather than through mind filters allows us to explore deeper issues more easily. This is why the arts can be a helpful tool for mental and emotional well-being.

So, What Is Art Therapy?

Some people may feel comfortable sharing their feelings in a support group or with a specialized counselor, also referred to as talk therapy. Others may not. According to the Art Therapy Credentials Board, art therapy “uses art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic and healing process.” You don’t have to consider yourself creative in any way to participate: moving through the method is what matters.

A vital modality since the 1940s, art therapy involves professionals with both art and therapy education in order to fulfill the purpose of stronger human development. The goal isn’t to provide an art lesson: it’s to use established counseling and psychological methods to facilitate wellness.

The American Art Therapy Association (ATA) states that “art therapists work with individuals, couples, families, and groups in diverse settings.” Some examples, which we include verbatim, include:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Veterans’ clinics
  • Private practice
  • Psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities
  • Community clinics
  • Crisis centers
  • Forensic institutions
  • Senior communities

Cathy Malchiodi is a leading expert in arts in healthcare, art therapy, expressive arts therapy, and trauma. Author of The Art Therapy Sourcebook and Trauma and Expressive Art Therapy, she notes 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.”

By accessing all your abilities—kinesthetic, perceptual, sensory, and symbolic—you have more empowerment for open expression. It’s also not just visual art: many people use music, dance, dramatic performances, collage, writing, modeling clay, and other creative outlets.

How to Get Started

Maybe you already work with a particular medium and would like to learn something different to expand your insight and find a greater sense of flow. Or maybe you’ve tried other forms of therapy and just can’t seem to make a breakthrough. You might also want to explore aspects of creative coping that provide calmer and reflection.

To find a certified art therapist near you, use the ATA’s locator. You can also talk with another mental health provider about options.

And for something you can use right now to spark imagination, Kaima partnered with NPR to create a printable “How to Start an Art Habit” zine. Print it here and learn how to fold it here.

Whole-Person Health at Cottonwood Tucson

The professionals at our Tucson-based behavioral health center strive to help you move beyond a diagnosis and into a fulfilling life, using an evidence-based foundation of effective therapy and holistic methods tailored to each individual. If you’re ready for a more comprehensive approach to mental and emotional health, please give us a call.

Considering mental health treatment in Arizona? For more information about Cottonwood Tucson, call (800) 877-4520. We are ready to help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.

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