Art therapy: What is it and who can benefit from it?
If you’re working towards improving your mental health or dealing with social anxiety, stress, emotional problems, art therapy may be worth a shot.
When you hear the term art therapy, you might imagine a peaceful room full of natural light, with a big empty canvas, a large collection of colours and paintbrushes and an extremely soothing atmosphere. While not wrong, this doesn’t really provide a full picture since painting definitely isn’t the only form of artistic expression. Even if you do end up using oils and watercolours, there's much more to art therapy than making an impactful artwork or just enjoying a fun and creative activity in our adult lives.
What is art therapy?
The American Association of Art Therapy defines art therapy as “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship”.
What this means is that art therapy is the use of creative expression to positively affect mental health. Several activities like drawing, painting, writing, collaging, sculpting and even baking come under the creative activities category. You need no previous experience or natural talent to try this form of therapy. This service is provided by a certified professional and is different from the use of adult colouring books, which became popular a few years ago as a method of dealing with anxiety and stress.
Does art therapy improve mental health?
Short answer: The jury is still out on this. Since it has only become popular in the last decade, there aren’t enough studies to draw strong conclusions. Most studies indicate a positive effect on mental health while others claim that the results are inconclusive. What we definitely know, though, is that it couldn’t hurt.
Long answer: The mental health benefits of engaging in creative activities are well established. A study published in Gerontology in the year 2006 stated that creative activity reduced feelings of depression and isolation in ageing dementia patients. Another study showed that activities like drawing and writing could help process traumatic events. Learning a new skill is also strongly associated with higher self-esteem. And mental health isn’t all - research shows stronger immunity in people who journal daily and better social skills in people who engage in group art therapy.
Also, in favour of art therapy, a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Art Therapy Association recorded lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in participants after they completed art therapy sessions conducted by a trained professional. The researchers concluded that art therapy was a successful technique in managing stress and anxiety as a result.
Who can benefit from art therapy?
Everyone, and not only people with a mental disorder, can benefit from participating in creative activities. If you’re working towards improving your mental health or dealing with low self-esteem, social anxiety, stress, emotional problems, art therapy may be worth a shot - as a supplement to the treatment plan prescribed by your doctor.
If it works for you, even marginally, you might want to find a way to work it into your daily life. If it doesn’t show results, you can always reach out to a medical professional to discuss alternatives like cognitive behavioural therapy or group therapy.
For more information, read our article on Types of therapy.
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