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How art therapy's powerful methods can help people of all ages overcome mental and physical health conditions

INSIDER logoINSIDER 2/26/2021 insider@insider.com (Kelly Burch,Emily Davenport)
a hand holding a fork and knife: Art therapy is often done with paints or ceramics. Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images © Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images Art therapy is often done with paints or ceramics. Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images
  • Art therapy is useful for people who have difficulty processing their emotions in words.
  • Art therapists provide space for creative expression and materials like paints, ceramics, and more.
  • Benefits of art therapy include improved mood and reduced stress levels in adults and children.
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Art therapy is a way of using art and creative expression to support healing and health. 

 

Anyone can benefit from art therapy, but it's particularly useful for people who might have difficulty processing their emotions in words. That includes children, people with trauma, and people with dementia

"Art therapy is the use of the creative process, alongside a masters-level art therapist [a mental health therapist with formal art therapy training], to increase resiliency, process trauma, and increase overall well-being in a non-judgmental therapeutic relationship," says Emily Allbery, PhD, an art therapy instructor at Miami University and a registered art therapist at Riley Hospital for Children.

As more research continues to uncover the benefits of art therapy, interest in this type of therapeutic practice grows. Learn more about art therapy and its benefits below.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is clinical work, done under the guidance of a trained professional, Allbery says. Art therapy is different from just relaxing or practicing self-care by being creative. 

"While art-making can be therapeutic, and have a variety of benefits when done independently, art therapy is a specialized discipline that utilizes the vast physiological benefits in combination with a therapist to help you reach goals and overall better well-being," says Allbery. 

Art therapy can take place in individual or group sessions, in any sort of setting, from a hospital to a school. A session typically starts with a verbal check-in between the patient and therapist, Carson says. Then, the therapist will provide the materials and space for creative expression. That's most often done with visual art materials like paints or ceramics but can also involve other expressive techniques.

"The art therapy interventions range from very directed, like 'show me using these materials what your safe space looks like' to non-directed, like 'let's create using the materials provided,' and use the subsequent conversation and art piece to discuss thoughts and feelings the client is having," Allbery says.

Important: Art therapy isn't about creating a masterpiece work of art, it's more about the process of creation and the thoughts and feelings that emerge while making art.

People do not need any experience with art to utilize forms of art therapy, says Allbery. 

"The last thing you need to benefit from art therapy is a background in art," she says. "The art therapist is there to create no-fail experiences to help you find and express your most inner self. The art materials act as a container for some of our most precious emotions and experiences"

Conditions art therapy may help treat


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Research has shown that art therapy can be beneficial for people with a variety of conditions and is effective with a range of patient populations, from prison inmates to cancer patients to everyday people facing challenges, as well as with children, says Cat Carson, MA, LMFTA, a therapist with Anchor Light Therapy Collaborative in Seattle.

"Almost anyone would benefit from art therapy," says Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, board-certified art therapist and owner of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. She notes that art therapy allows many people, regardless of their specific condition, to tap into their subconscious thought patterns in a way that even those who are relatively healthy can benefit from. 

While art therapy can be good for patients who aren't able to express themselves verbally, it's also great for people who over-think and know just what to say to a therapist, Lurie says. 

"They are so well-versed in the verbal retelling of their own story, that approaching it through art offers a fresh perspective that allows them to see that story from new angles," Lurie says. 

Art therapy can be used to help patients with a range of physical and mental health conditions, including:

Benefits of art therapy

Research has shown many benefits to art therapy. Broadly, making art can give you a boost of dopamine, the brain's feel-good chemical. Coupling that with a trained professional can have a big impact on mental health, Allbery says. 

 

"Art therapy can help increase the brain's release of dopamine and improve overall self-esteem; both of which are important contributing factors to treating mental health complaints or disorders. Art therapy can also help reduce stress, anxiety, and pain," she says.

A 2018 review found that art therapy leads to:

  • Better emotional state and decreased reporting of symptoms in cancer patients
  • Reduced stress for people with other medical conditions including HIV/AIDS
  • Improved symptoms for patients with mental health conditions
  • Improved quality of life for war veterans
  • Less depression, better impulse control, and improved emotional state in prison inmates
  • Less depression and better emotional state for the elderly and people with dementia 
  • Less stress, anxiety, and burnout for people coping with everyday challenges

Art therapy has been shown to have "significant effects" on children with trouble regulating their behavior and emotions and to help children and families with trauma. There's currently a push to research the neuroscience behind art therapy, says Allbery. 

What the research says: Art therapy has potential benefits including improved emotional state, stress reduction, a better quality of life, less depression, and more for people ranging from children to cancer and HIV/AIDS patients to prison inmates and the elderly.

Insider's takeaway

Art therapy may benefit children or adults with physical or mental health conditions. It's been shown to boost mood, reduce stress levels, and improve quality of life from people ranging from cancer patients to prison inmates to kids. 

Many of the benefits from art therapy come from allowing people to express themselves without words, says Carson. 

"Art therapy interventions are rarely about creating something 'beautiful,' but rather about the process of creating, and seeing what emerges when we stop censoring ourselves," she says. 

For more information on art therapy or to find a licensed therapist, Carson recommends checking out the American Art Therapy Association.

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