Mental Health

Art Therapy: How Art Can Benefit Mental Health

art therapy mental health
I feel accomplished and more fulfilled once a piece of art is created.

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How can both viewing and creating art act as art therapy, and benefit our mental health?

When discussing the many ways to improve our mental health, medication, counselling and ‘think more positivity’ seems to be the go-to responses. As I’ve become more and more into the holistic side of health, I’ve come across many different therapies that replace the norm. This has been partially due to my own curiosity, but it’s also been fueled by my need to find something better.

There’s got to be better treatments out there than the traditional medication and quick go-to CBT sessions, right?

Here are some of the benefits I’ve learned art therapy can have on our mental health:

1. Relieves stress and mental exhaustion

Creating art by painting, drawing, sketching, sculpting, photography, scrapbooking, writing, bullet journals and even just by colouring in are all relaxing and rewarding activities.

Evidence suggests that we carry over 60,000 thoughts in our heads on a daily basis. That’s a lot, and what’s more is that if you suffer from mental illness, the majority of these thoughts are likely to be self-deprecating. Some might even be harmful to us or others around us.

Art, whether creating it or just looking at it, can serve as a distraction and help our brains relax. When you get ‘into the zone’ while painting or drawing you fall into a meditative-like state where all your focus is on just one thing: Creating!

Even spending time viewing art has its benefits. Reading, for example, allows us to escape. The art we choose to hang on our walls, or in galleries serve as a welcome escape from the mundane world. Why look at cars passing your house when you have a beautiful painting above your fireplace? There’s no competition.

In fact, science has suggested that viewing art gives us the same pleasure as falling in love.

2. Encourages creative thinking

Art therapy encourages us to think more creatively both when creating and viewing art. Although the ‘answers‘ may not be as clear cut as math it encourages us to use our creative brain in order to come up with answers and solutions ourselves, with no ‘right‘ answer set in stone.

Looking at art in a gallery doesn’t tell us how to think or what to feel, nor does listening to music or reading a book. You’re left to interpret it as you go, free to make up your own mind.

3. Boosts self-esteem

For those who create art in any form, it injects confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Every little problem you solve, every colour or word or stitch your connect together is using your creative brain to make something beautiful.

That’s why it’s encouraging to put your children’s art on the fridge. You’re showing them that you’re proud and that they did a great job, even if all they did was draw a stick man.

4. Encourages us to communicate feelings

Art therapy can become a way for us to communicate difficult thoughts and feelings that may seem too complex for us to talk about. With art, we can focus on colours, figures, and words which are easier displayed in an artistic manner than by speaking alone.

5. Increases feelings of empathy

Often when looking at a painting, listening to a song or reading a story we can feel the emotion behind it, almost as if we were inside that person’s head. It can act as a huge relief for not only the artist but also the viewer or listener as we can be made feel understood and less alone in our own battles.

A study on the educational value of field trips found that children who visited museums reported to feelings of empathy for those who lived before them and expressed more tolerance to those people who may be different from them:

“We find that students learn quite a lot. In particular, enriching field trips contribute to the development of students into civilized young men and women who possess more knowledge about art, have stronger critical-thinking skills, exhibit increased historical empathy, display higher levels of tolerance, and have a greater taste for consuming art and culture.” -Jay P. Greene, Brain Kisida & Daniel H. Bowen

6. Eases the burden of chronic health conditions

A study found that artistic expression produced significantly positive health effects, both physical and mental.

“Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing. The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.” –The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature,2010

In their study, they found that art and music affected patients in these ways:

  • Allows patients to ‘forget about their illnesses’ while allowing them to focus on the more positive aspects of life.
  • Creating art allows patients to maintain their own identity, and not this ‘new identity’ with an illness.
  • Creating art promoted a sense of achievement among patients.
  • Patients were better able to express their feelings.
  • Art reduced overall stress levels by lowering cortisol.

7. Increases the production of dopamine

According to Gutman.SA, artistic hobbies including sewing, drawing, painting, writing, DIY, knitting, etc, increase the dopamine production in our brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and includes several different pathways, one of which focuses on motivation and reward-motivated behaviour.

Creating art, and even viewing it, can promote a positive response in the brain making us feel more focused and preparing us for learning.

“Low levels of dopamine in the body can contribute to a plethora of health problems, including depression, a lack of interest in life, fatigue, mood swings, poor memory, and impulsive behavior, just to name a few. In fact, decreased levels of dopamine may even lead to bone loss.” –Vivian Goldschmidt, MA

The benefits of art therapy in any form are extensive and therefore difficult to fit into just one list.

As someone who not only enjoys art but creates it in both writing and sketching, I can only vow for myself when I say I feel accomplished and more fulfilled once a piece of art is created. Even if I hate that piece of art, the act of creating it can put me into a relaxed and focused state.

Do you enjoy art? Have you ever considered or tried art therapy? Comment below!


art therapy mental health

My name is Chloe. I write about eating disorders and mental health (among other topics) over on my blog. I've suffered from anorexia for over 13 years and spent about 7 of those in quasi-recovery. It was only after a recent burnout in December of 2018 that I relapsed and decided, once and for all, to get the help I needed. I believe that each and every sufferer has it inside them to reach that point where food is no longer the enemy, and that full recovery is an obtainable goal.

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