How does art therapy help mental health and wellbeing

Deborah C. Escalante

Art for Self-Care and Mental Health

Think of something creative that you enjoy doing. Perhaps it’s dance, painting, or creating music. How do you feel when you are creating art? Some would say calm, happy, relaxed, or inspired. Art has an incredible way of connecting the world and allowing us to express ourselves. Because of these feel-good effects, art is a powerful tool for self-care and mental health.

Studies have shown that expression through art can help people with depression, anxiety, and stress. Art has also been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in aging adults.

We’re diving into the powerful impact art can have on your life. The best part is, art is something everyone can participate in. It does not prescribe to any particular set of norms and is unique to each and every one of us. So why not give it a try? It may be the best trick for health yet!

Benefits of Art for Mental Health

Stress Relief

Stress is proven to be detrimental for our physical and mental health. One of the best ways to combat stress, is to make art! Study after study has shown that drawing, doodling, coloring, and simply creating something for 20 plus minutes reduces cortisol. The best part is that previous art experience is not required to reap these benefits.

Boosts Self-Esteem

The consistent practice of art can build a sense of accomplishment for all ages in just 45 minutes. Creativity makes us feel good about ourselves. It validates our unique ideas and our ability to turn ideas into something physical. Taking time for your hobbies and crafts often provides a sense of self-worth and confidence in our abilities. So knit that sweater and play that piano!


Healing from trauma is a complicated process and there are many practices that can help facilitate this process. Research has proved that art can help process pain and provide a direct connection between the mind and body to help with the healing process.

Expressive Therapy

Expressive arts, such as visual arts, movement, drama, music, and writing, foster deep personal growth and community development. Expressive art therapy allows users to laugh, let go, and relax, which helps decrease depression, anxiety, and stress.

Ways to Practice Self-Care through Art

Use Art as a Release

A common exercise to utilize art for release is to first represent things you want to let go of as words, drawings, colors, or images on a blank canvas. Then you can burn it, rip it up, cover it up with something new that inspires you, throw it away, put it in water, or destroy it in any way you please.

Respond through Art

In the same way that releasing through art can help us overcome difficulties, it can also be used to cope with pain and negative feelings. Some examples include writing to a loved one that hurt you or taking photos of a place that used to hold meaning to you. It is also helpful to find a piece of art you connect with such as music, writing, or a painting, and to then utilize this inspiration to create something of your own as an emotional response. Understanding what you are trying to capture through this piece and breaking down how it makes you feel can be beneficial to this analysis.

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Mindful Creativity

Art doesn’t require thought, it can be a free-flowing creative process. To practice mindful art, you can simply start creating or choose a piece of art as inspiration for your own creation. Block out the other thoughts and distractions in your life and give yourself a set amount of time to make art or enjoy it.

Collage your Thoughts or Visions

Some people find it difficult or don’t enjoy the practice of drawing, painting, or writing but there are endless ways to practice art. You can create a collage that expresses what you’re feeling about a specific situation to process your emotions and thoughts. You may also collage a vision board to focus on the future and use photos that excite you. All you need are some magazines, newspapers, or old images around your house.

Color a Feeling Wheel

Leah Guzman is an art therapist who wrote a book on further practices in essential art therapy, and an exercise she champions is to develop a color feeling wheel to deal with emotions. It starts by drawing a circle then dividing it into eighths and writing one emotion in each section, then pick a color that represents that feeling and color the section in. Afterwards, pay attention to which emotions were associated with which colors, the feelings you wrote first, and how this is applicable to your everyday life.

Other Practices of Art

The benefits of art are extended across any medium that excites you. Consider trying different forms of art and tapping into your creative mind along the way. Here’s a list of other popular art forms to explore:

  • Doodling or scribbling
  • Coloring
  • Writing
  • Photography
  • Sculpting
  • Playing an instrument
  • Dancing
  • Fashion
  • Needlework crafts
  • Jewelry making

Are you an artist or creative? Share with us in the comments below what creative art forms bring you peace and joy!

The benefits art therapy can have on mental and physical health

Art can be a versatile form of therapy that can help people of all ages.

Art therapy has been around since the 1940s. Two pioneers in the field, Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer, used art therapy as a way to help clients tap into their inner thoughts, feelings and experiences through creative expression. Therapist use patients’ free form art expressions to encourage them to talk about the images and to begin to look to themselves for meaning and insight. Combined with talk therapy, it can help people deal with strong emotions, increase self-awareness and self-worth and decrease stress and anxiety. Art therapy can involve a variety of creative expression including drawing, painting, coloring or sculpting, to name a few.

Over the decades, art therapy has been used mainly by mental health practitioners for patients ranging in age from the very young to the elderly, war veterans, prisoners and people with diagnosed mental disorders. By the 20th century, art therapy was a recognized field requiring certification and training in both art and therapy. Art therapy has also moved outside of mental health facilities and into other community settings such as schools, shelters, nursing homes, residential treatment facilities and halfway houses.

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In more recent years, researchers have explored the benefits of art therapy for treating a variety of physical health difficulties. Some of their findings show art therapy:

  • Helped reduce pain, decrease symptoms of stress and improve quality of life in adult cancer patients.
  • Improved ability to deal with pain and other frightening symptoms in children with cancer.
  • Reduced stress and anxiety in children with asthma.
  • Stimulated mental function in older adults with dementia.
  • Indicated a reduction in depression in Parkinson’s patients.

In her book, The Art Therapy Sourcebook, Cathy Malchiodi, a leading expert in today’s art therapy movement, states 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.”

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that overall human health encompasses many aspects, and positive health outcomes involve integrated mental, physical, social/emotional and environmental approaches. Art therapy is one approach that has proven to benefit both mental and physical health. If you are interested in learning more about ways MSU Extension can help you be healthier, please visit our website, and check out some of our classes such as Stress Less with Mindfulness and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger.

Art therapy is an integrative form of therapy that helps individuals heal through creative expression. It involves the use of different art forms and mediums to aid people in communication and exploring their experiences. Art therapy is used in various settings with individuals, couples, families, and groups to support people of all ages with mental health and physical conditions.

This article discusses the techniques and benefits of art therapy and provides insight on what to consider when seeking this type of therapy.


In art therapy, people can explore and express their thoughts, emotions, experiences, and perceptions of themselves through art. It provides a safe, nonjudgmental, and controlled environment where you can begin to grow and heal.

This type of therapy is often applied in settings like:

  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Private practice 
  • Community-based programs
  • Outpatient centers
  • Nursing and rehabilitation centers

Art therapy supports people with conditions such as:


Therapists may use and recommend many kinds of media and materials to help patients communicate and express themselves. Music, drama, dance, painting, and writing therapies are types of art therapy.

Some techniques used in art therapy include but are not limited to:

  • Storytelling
  • Playing music
  • Photography
  • Drawing or doodling
  • Collage
  • Wood, copper, or metalwork 
  • Crafting, such as embroidery or knitting

Art Therapy Activities

A person can engage in creative activities at home. Examples of activities include:

  • Writing about or creating a painting of a safe place
  • Drawing a self-portrait
  • Painting or drawing your mood
  • Playing a song that mirrors your emotions


A review of multiple studies on the effectiveness of art therapy shows that it improves quality of life and a person’s ability to manage psychological symptoms, medical and age-related conditions, daily challenges, stress, and burnout.

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Art therapy is individually tailored to your needs and focuses on personal goals and well-being.

Art Therapy Benefits

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Some benefits of engaging in art therapy include:

  • Reduces symptoms of acute and chronic mental health conditions
  • Enhances ability to manage acute and chronic medical conditions
  • Improves cognitive and sensorimotor functions
  • Improves self-esteem and self-awareness
  • Cultivates resilience
  • Strengthens social skills
  • Provides healthy self-expression
  • Helps work through stressful and traumatic events

Another review on art therapy noted a study where people with depression saw improvement in social functioning after attending a painting group for three months. The same study also mentions an art therapy program that effectively reduced depression symptoms in people in prison.

These findings suggest that art therapy can benefit various populations by improving well-being. 

What to Expect

As with any therapy, a therapist may start by conducting an evaluation, which will include learning about your psychiatric and medical history. Additionally, you and your healthcare provider will discuss concerns and goals, and decide together on a place to begin.

Throughout therapy, the patient and therapist may talk about what they are creating, their process, what comes to mind for them, what they are learning about themselves, and more.

No Art Experience Required

Contrary to popular belief, being artistic isn’t required for art therapy. Instead, a therapist may suggest strategies to help people start examining their experiences.

Getting Started

There are a few things to consider when seeking art therapy:

  • Find a professional who has education and training in art therapy. Art therapists have at least a Master’s degree and have met the standards identified by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Credentialed art therapists can be found on their website.
  • Some insurance plans may cover art therapy. Checking with an insurance carrier can help locate therapists and determine coverage.
  • Upon identifying potential providers, request a consultation. Ask questions about their background and training and how they work with patients.
  • Before diving in, make sure it feels like a good fit. Part of this process may include sharing information about concerns to make sure their training aligns with your needs.


Incorporating aspects of dance, drama, music, writing, and more, art therapy supports people in managing mental health and medical conditions. Art therapy can help people learn to communicate effectively, express themselves, and heal. Finding a professional with specialized education and training in art therapy is a great first step.

A Word From Verywell

You don’t have to be naturally artistic to utilize art therapy. Art therapy can provide you with activities to better understand yourself and how you relate to others and the world. It can be a creative way to help you find meaning and heal from daily stress, traumatic events, and conditions affecting your mental and physical well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does art therapy help with trauma?

    Art therapy can help people process and heal from trauma. For example, a therapist might suggest integrating art therapy to help you express thoughts and feelings related to trauma. This often gives you the power to examine the trauma safely in a nonjudgmental way.

  • Does art therapy actually work?

    Yes. Research shows that art therapy can help people with mental health or medical conditions to improve their quality of life. Exploring inner experiences can help reduce symptoms and improve personal well-being and relationships. In addition, art therapy works well in conjunction with other forms of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy.

  • How long does it take to see results from art therapy?

    Each person’s experience with art therapy is different. An art therapist will check in with you during sessions to talk about progress. While some may start to feel benefits sooner, others might take more time to explore what comes up for them as they create.

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