What Is Art Therapy?

I am a big believer in trying different therapeutic approaches to find one that fits your needs. If one approach hasn’t worked for you in the past, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you. Often it’s the wrong approach or the wrong therapist for your needs.

This is a major problem in the self-help community as ideas are often said to be ‘the thing you should be doing.’ Often it is what has worked for the author but doesn’t mean it will work for you.

In this piece, I wish to discuss Art therapy as an alternative approach that isn’t often discussed. Art therapy is particularly effective when used in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches.

Some key examples of when art therapy is effective are…

You do not have a good understanding of how you feel and struggle to communicate it to yourself or others.

You understand your feelings but struggle to articulate it in a way that can be constructive.

Particularly useful with children who struggle through other more traditional therapeutic approaches.

This is not an exhaustive list as art therapy goes beyond a communication method. Artistic practice in itself can be very therapeutic. It does highlight situations that it can be useful.

Why art therapy?


It’s worth noting that there are many types of art-based therapies. They can use music, sculpture or dance for example. Each of these has its own unique use, however, I will be focusing on mediums like painting and drawing.

The goal of this type of art therapy is self-discovery and growth. It can reduce anxiety and help with emotional regulation. It combines the act of creating art with therapy.

Art therapy combines with other therapeutic approaches. In this setting, creating art is a tool. One such approach is to use art therapy with the cognitive behavioural model.  

This model looks at the relationship between thought, emotions, physiology and behaviour. Using art to better explore this relationship can improve understanding.

People can often be reluctant to try creating art due to lack of skill or training. The focus of art therapy should almost always be on the creative process, not on the finished product.

Anyone can take part in art therapy, no matter the skill level. 

Why does it work?

Depending on the approach, there are many reasons why art creation can aid therapy.

From a biological perspective, cortisol appears to decrease with art creation. Cortisol is often discussed due to its relationship with stress.

Cortisol increase is a side effect of stress, not the cause of physiological stress. Prolonged, elevated cortisol levels cause damage to the body due to fatiguing systems.

Cortisol influences many of our regulatory systems such as metabolism. Fatiguing these systems with elevated levels of the hormone causes long term problems.

Creating art reduces cortisol levels and thus reduce the chance these issues develop.

Evidence for the biological explanation is rather weak. It also doesn’t explain the cognitive and emotional benefits completely.

Personality theorists would suggest that people have differing levels of creativity. Very creative people have a need to create. If they do not have some creative outlet, they suffer. Art therapy can fulfil those needs.

This perspective implies that art therapy is more beneficial to creative people. While it’s true that some people will connect with art therapy better than others. It isn’t clear this is due to how creative they are.

There seems to be a benefit to having mind and body focused on a singular task. This is very similar to what positive psychology describes as a flow state.

The ‘flow’ experience has many benefits as people engage completely with the task. Both their mind and body work in unison and they report this experience as powerful and positive.

Other traditional therapies rarely have a physical element. Using art to trigger a state like the flow state might help explain its benefits.

The act of engaging the body and mind in this manner may help the therapeutic process.

Our minds and body are more interconnected than is often acknowledged. For example, hand gestures appear to share motor planning with mouth movements.

This may explain why people gesture more when trying to articulate difficult things. Another example is when people experience the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon. Some people start fidgeting and moving as they try to ‘search’ for the word.

There are many reasons why art therapy is effective. Whether it be aligning the mind and body or helping other therapeutic approaches.

Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, is challenging. Creating art can be relaxing which might help get you into a better frame of mind to practice it.

The important point is that art therapy can help in itself or combined with other therapies.

How is it used?

It would be understandable to think that art therapy is all about interpretation. Where a therapist asked you to create a piece and then analysed it.

This might be the case when coupled with a psychoanalytic approach. The art, in theory, would provide insight into the unconscious.  This isn’t useful for self-practice and evidence for it is also weak.

Many early approaches used projective drawing. This is where you draw a specific thing, such as a person or scene. This is then used by a therapist to interpret how you view yourself or that scene. Again, the evidence for this being effective is weak.

This also isn’t useful for self-practice as you would have to analyse your own work.

Using the cognitive behavioural model in conjunction with art therapy is more effective. There is also a lot more self-practice involved in cognitive approaches.

The goal of cognitive behavioural therapy involves challenging negative thought patterns. It aims to change behaviours and help you understand why you act and think in certain ways. It tries to replace negative patterns with positive, constructive ones.

Using art therapy in conjunction with this increases the efficacy of both. For example, a common practice is to keep a journal of how you were feeling or experiences you had through the day.

Drawing alongside that journal could capture those experiences better. It may allow deeper insight into the emotions behind situations throughout the day.

An image can capture the emotion while you write any negative thoughts you had. This might better enable you to see the connections between thoughts and feelings.

This also enables you to change the image later. You can create an addition to the scene which makes you feel more comfortable. Or you can recreate the image with a new goal added to it.

Visualisation is often used in cognitive behavioural therapy. Art can become a recorded version of this.

If you have social anxiety, you may draw an image that represents this. After, you may create a new image which shows you overcoming this social anxiety. You can then refer to this and develop as a new form of visualisation.

This also creates a powerful record for you to reflect on. When feeling down you can use this as a way to show your progress.

You can look at your experiences and what caused them. You can consider how to change behaviour or whether you need to change how you feel about it.

These different practices can all become empowered by the visual aspect of art.

This method also works towards desensitisation. In cognitive therapy, visualising triggers is a practice used to reduce anxiety.

Stress associated with a trigger reduces as you become more familiar with it. It also allows you to adjust and manipulate the trigger, how you feel or the behaviour around it.

Art can empower this further. One way to help is by deconstructing a trigger. Developing a better understanding of it. This can be challenging when done through visualisation.

By using art, you construct the trigger piece by piece as you draw. This will increase your understanding of the trigger in a unique way.

Creating art can also be very good at focusing on key problems. When reflecting back over images, it becomes very clear if there is a common thread.

As said earlier, the act of creating art in itself can be relaxing. For someone dealing with anxiety, creating art can prepare them for therapy. This is especially true of people who are anxious over therapy itself.

You might still be able to sit down and draw or paint, even if it’s without much thought. This can be an effective way to start working into therapeutic practice.

The key point here is that rather than thinking of your art as a way to analyse and interpret your thoughts. Use it as a tool much like writing to explore and communicate your feelings.

We experience a lot throughout the day and those experiences are often lost if not recorded.  Instead, write, draw, paint, whatever you need to do to represent and capture those moments.

Reflect on those images. Let your writing work with the images to give a more complete representation. Don’t think that you need to create one piece of work and that will enlighten you. It’s about creating many pieces.

Art therapy is about using creative practice to communicate and understand. It’s best used in conjunction with other therapies, such as the cognitive model. It’s a tool to experience and help with self-care and discovery.

Art therapy is definitely worth trying out. All you need to start is a piece of paper and a pencil.

Further reading I recommend:

Malchiodi, C. A. (Ed.). (2011). Handbook of art therapy. Guilford Press.

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