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What Is Art Therapy And How Does It Work?

Written by Sarah Norman

Review by Alina Ivan

Tagged in

  • wellness
  • Therapy


Sep 10, 2021, 7 min read

Whether you consider yourself to be a creative person or not, there is a good chance that art therapy will help you to know yourself better and process your past experiences, as well as improve your mental health. Let's talk more about what exactly art therapy is and how it works.

So, what IS art therapy?

Art therapy is a well-established approach to psychological therapy that's facilitated by skilled art therapists or art psychotherapists. It aims to support a wide range of individuals, including those who have experienced trauma, sickness or disability, in addressing their social, emotional, and mental health needs.

So, what is art therapy?

In the UK, individuals offering art therapy must complete a training course that has been validated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in order to work as an art therapist or art psychotherapist, and the HCPC maintains a register of certified art therapists so it is easy to find a proper practitioner.

The aim of art therapy is to employ the creative process to enable individuals to explore self-expression, thereby discovering new methods for gaining personal understanding and developing new coping strategies. The process of creating or appreciating of art is utilised to assist individuals in exploring emotions, cultivating self-awareness, managing stress, enhancing self-esteem, and improving social skills.

The techniques of art therapy aren't restricted to "fine art" like painting, either! All kinds of artistic expression and creativity can be used, including

• Collage

• Colouring

• Doodling and scribbling

• Drawing

• Finger painting

• Painting

• Photography

• Sculpting

• Working with clay

• ...and much more

As people create artworks, they may also analyse their creations and the feelings they evoke with the support of the therapist in the session. By delving into their art, individuals can identify themes and conflicts potentially influencing their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, which helps to build overall understanding of these things and support the path to better mental health.

Who is art therapy for?

The short version is: everybody! People of all cultural backgrounds and ages, including infants and parents, children, young adults and the elderly, can benefit from art therapy. While participants are often drawn to the possibilities offered by creativity and imagination, prior experience in making art is not necessary.

Who is art therapy for?

You also don't need to be actively diagnosed with any conditions or challenges - art therapy is just as good for a mental or emotional wellbeing tune-up as it can be as part of broader therapy to address identified issues. There really is no barrier to trying art therapy for the first time to see if it could be beneficial for you.

How long has art therapy been in use?

The concept of art as a healing influence dates back to ancient times, but the term "art therapy" was first coined in the mid-20th century in 1942 by British artist Adrian Hill, who discovered the therapeutic benefits of drawing while recovering from tuberculosis.

Art therapy provides a safe space for self-expression and can benefit people of every age, race, and gender. It has been shown to increase creative skills, enhance communication and concentration, and provide a new perspective on problems or situations. Art therapy can be particularly beneficial for those dealing with trauma, abuse, grief, anxiety, and eating disorders.

A short history of art therapy

Research indicates that art therapy can have significant mental and physical health benefits. It can alleviate pain symptoms, manage intense emotions, foster self-awareness and self-worth, and decrease stress and anxiety. By engaging in the creative process, individuals can explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behaviour, develop social skills, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.

What conditions can art therapy help with?

Art therapy can aid in the management of various mental, emotional, and physical health issues. It's used to help individuals coping with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, and stress. It also aids those dealing with chronic illnesses by providing an outlet for expressing feelings about their condition.

Art therapy has been shown to be beneficial in treating behavioural and psychosocial issues such as eating disorders or substance abuse, helping to improve social skills and self-esteem. It's also advantageous for individuals on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disorders, as it enhances communication and expression. It can help to foster self-awareness, promote emotional resilience, and provide a sense of personal fulfilment, and even provide benefits towards healthier aging.

Benefits of art therapy

Does art therapy really work?

Art therapy is increasingly recognised as a valuable tool in the therapeutic field due to its ability to aid individuals in expressing emotions and experiences that may be difficult to articulate verbally. According to a study published in The Arts in Psychotherapy, art therapy can significantly reduce a wide range of psychological symptoms related to trauma, stress, and anxiety.

A systematic review in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association found that art therapy provided measurable psychological benefits to clients dealing with mental health disorders, including improved mood and reduced symptoms of depression. Research from the International Journal of Art Therapy also indicates that art therapy can enhance the quality of life for both people living with dementia and their primary caregivers, and that it can reduce symptoms of depression while boosting self-esteem for older adults living in care homes.

In research involving adults who have endured trauma, it was discovered that art therapy significantly diminished symptoms of trauma and reduced levels of depression. Another review exploring the effectiveness of art therapy revealed that this method assisted patients undergoing medical treatment for cancer to enhance their quality of life and alleviate a range of psychological symptoms.

While individual experiences may vary, and there are lots of considerations as to whether art therapy will be right for you, there's plenty of strong evidence to suggest that it can be an effective intervention for many people.

Remember: you don't need permission to engage with the arts

A lot of us feel like we somewhat need permission to engage with the arts. Some of us might have gained permission through getting an art degree or by being told by our parents that we were good at drawing in school. However, a lot of us feel like it's not for us, or perhaps that we aren't "good enough" because the art we output isn't deemed societally excellent enough to allow it to exist.

Historically, the arts have been deemed highbrow and only suitable for those who possessed certain skills or gravitated around certain environments. Nowadays, not only have the arts become more participatory and diversified their shapes and forms, but they have also become a means to heal when combined with art therapy. In short: you don't need to be the next Picasso, or even able to make recognisable shapes at all, in order to give art therapy a try.

A gateway into the unconscious

Art therapy provides a way to surpass the language barrier and explore experiences that have not been processed.

"It's a form of psychological intervention. It’s more based on a psychodynamic model than a creative arts workshop. The unconscious can come to the surface through the art world and be communicated with the therapist and contained. The therapist can help the client go through it without having to talk about it too much. This can be helpful in order to avoid re-traumatising the client, especially when they don't really know what’s bothering them."

Lee Anna Simmons, art and EMDR therapist

How does art therapy work?

Angel by L. A. Simmons. Oil on linen, 2014. Made using bilateral brushstrokes, experimenting with EMDR and Art Therapy.

A session typically starts by assessing a client's history and aims, which then inform the therapeutic framework. Art therapy can take a psychodynamic approach, drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis. It takes a view into the unconscious and helps to process and resolve deep-rooted feelings developed beginning with childhood. Often, the conscious mind can block these emotions and deny them, causing them to manifest in one's mood or behaviour. This can result in denial, projections and ultimately, mental health problems.

Based on this framework, the client is prompted to use the art materials. The spontaneity of art enables raw and at times incoherent feelings and thoughts to come out, which the therapist welcomes with no judgement. This way, the client becomes more honest and open - both with the therapist and with themselves.

"Engaging with the art materials takes the pressure off the client compared to being face-to-face. It gives them something to do with their hands, which engages a different part of their brain simultaneously." - Lee Anna Simmons, art and EMDR therapist

Art therapy can benefit both children and adults, irrespective of background and skills. Whether you are struggling with depression, anxiety or another mental health condition, or simply wish to know yourself better, you may want to explore art therapy as a way to bring the subconscious closer to the surface and find out more about what makes you tick.

How art therapy works

If you have a question about art or other forms of creative therapy and how they could improve your mental health, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.

Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private psychiatric assessments to helping you find a therapist near you for support on your journey.

Not sure where to start?

We offer a free 15 minute consultation so that we can guide you to the most relevant professionals