Art therapy is a multi-faceted form of expressive therapy that combines psychological theories and techniques with the creative process. It is an evidence-based practice that offers an alternative path to traditional talk therapy. Art making can provide a safe way to access your experiences, and a new language to communicate emotions.
Some experiences feel difficult, or even impossible, to express with words. Processing these emotions through art therapy can be a gentle way to heal. Making art may help you find the words that eluded you before, and the art therapist provides a safe space to share. Art therapists may offer a theme for you to focus on in your art making, or you can choose your own path.
The process is unique for everyone – some people choose to focus mainly on artmaking, while others prefer to talk and might use materials simply to self sooth while they speak about a difficult topic. Remember – you don’t have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy! You don’t even have to know anything about art materials. Your therapist is there to guide you.
Children tend to be less inhibited when it comes to art making, and may take to the process more quickly, but teenagers and adults absolutely benefit from this approach. Art therapy is not about creating a masterpiece to hang on the wall, it’s about the process of expressing yourself, which is healthy for people of all ages.
You might make something you love and want to keep, and that’s great! However, it’s okay to feel ambivalent about the final product, because usually the process is the most important part. Art therapy is effective in treating mental challenges, including depression, anxiety, and mood & eating disorders. It can also aid the healing process after experiencing trauma or loss.
The main purpose of art therapy is to improve your well-being, whatever your circumstances are. Art therapists use the creative process to help people resolve conflicts, increase self-awareness, manage behavior, develop coping skills, and reduce stress. Art therapists specialize in psychology and human development, and have further training in artistic techniques.
Licensed art therapists have earned a Master’s degree, gained required experience and supervision hours, and passed a national board certification exam. Regulating Emotions with Art Therapy I have found art therapy to be extremely helpful in managing anxiety. People with anxiety often experience overwhelming and aversive emotions that stimulate their stress responses.
Art making can be useful as a way to self-sooth, contain, and externalize these frightening emotions. Anxiety manifests through thoughts, emotions, and physical symptoms that can be hard to understand and explain. Using metaphor, shapes, colors, textures, and lines to reflect these experiences can help you comprehend them more, and begin to regulate them. Art therapy encourages focus on your inner experience, and research has proven that identifying and labeling these internal states can help you regain calm.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s hard to put these states into words. Imagine instead splattering colorful paint to reflect how chaotic you feel. Crumpling tissue paper to represent the stormy clouds moving through your mind. Maybe ripping and layering paper to mirror how you wish you could just climb under the covers and hide. Using art supplies can help convey your thoughts and emotions so you can see them in context. It helps build insight into the causes and effects of your anxiety, and aids you in finding words for your experiences. For many people, the art making process itself is also inherently cathartic.
Regardless of the final product, you can feel soothed by the mindful, one step at a time method of creating. Getting through the moment when you’re in a state of heightened anxiety can feel intolerable. Art making can be used in that moment to help ground and focus you until the wave of emotion passes. This can be especially helpful in therapy, when recalling painful experiences is part of your focus. It’s so easy to re-experience the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations of anxiety when you’re talking about the past.
A significant barrier to seeking therapy for a lot of people is how scary it feels to sit in front of another person and talk about what makes you anxious. We’ve all experienced how talking about something overwhelming can put us right back in that moment, and most of us do whatever we can to avoid that. Having art materials on hand to help occupy your hands and gaze can make that conversation not only bearable, but productive.
Whether in therapy or on your own, art making can be a useful coping skill to manage waves of anxiety. Coping Skill: Responsive Line If you’d like to try using art making as a coping skill during times of heightened emotion, try starting with something simple. Many of us have scribbled or doodled before, usually without a specific goal or aesthetic in mind, simply because it feels relaxing.
The Responsive Line Technique
One of my favorite art making techniques for managing anxiety is a more mindful version of scribbling, which I call “responsive line”. Try to start with no preconception about how the final piece will turn out. Make a single line (or shape, or brushstroke) and take a moment to observe it. Respond to that mark with a second one. Keeping responding to what you have down on the page, and surprise yourself with how it develops.
This technique can help ground you in the moment, encourages a nonjudgmental approach, and requires just enough focus to distract from anxious thoughts without adding more stress. You can start and finish a piece in one sitting, or maybe return to it and continue over a longer period of time. You also don’t need to limit yourself to drawing, this can be done with collage materials, three-dimensional art – anything works as long as you maintain a responsive approach. If you notice yourself struggling with judgmental thoughts, try noticing how the process feels rather than if your piece looks “right”.
Whether or not you consider yourself an artist, art therapy can be a powerful tool for communicating, regulating emotions, and developing insight.