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Paint a picture or two and feel better...seriously?!?

Well, there's a bit more to it than that, but basically - yes - you can heal through creative expression, especially when working with a trained art therapist.

Art therapy is a kind of psychotherapy. Most types of psychotherapy use talking as the primary form of communication, but in art therapy you communicate through drawing or painting, dance, music or through other forms of creative expression, as well as through verbal expression.

Is Art Therapy Right for You?

Most people can benefit from art therapy but it is particularly suited to people who find it hard to express thoughts and feelings through verbal communication.1

In general, people who may find art therapy helpful include:

  • People who have tried conventional psychotherapy without success
  • Children (children often lack the verbal abilities to explain complex feelings)
  • People who cannot speak due to stroke, dementia or other medical problems
  • People struggling with problems beyond their conscious awareness (from the subconscious or unconscious)
  • People who struggle to communicate their feelings due to cross-cultural misunderstandings or language barriers
  • People dealing with fear and anxiety about medical problems, such as cancer
  • People who struggle with intrusive thoughts (focusing on an art task can help to block intrusive thoughts)

Art therapy is used to treat people...

  • with depression, anxiety and other serious and persistent mental illnesses
  • with substance abuse problems
  • who have experienced trauma
  • who live with chronic pain
  • struggling with bereavement issues
  • with serious physical illnesses, like cancer
  • with eating disorders
  • who need to improve quality of life2

Do You Need Artistic Skills to Benefit from Art Therapy?

You need no artistic abilities to benefit from art therapy.

The value of the therapy comes from the intrinsic benefits of creating art and from what your expression communicates to your therapist – what your end result looks like does not matter at all.3

How Does Art Therapy Help?

Art therapy helps in 2 basic ways:

  1. Making art is intrinsically therapeutic – Just through the process of art and through authentic self expression you can experience emotional healing and growth
  2. Art provides a new way to communicate – Through your art you communicate thoughts and emotions that you may be unable or unwilling to verbalize to a therapist. The therapist can then help you to identify and work through difficult thoughts and emotions4

Different Types of Art Therapies

Art therapy makes use of the creative process and personal reflection as tools to improve emotional and physical health.5

Although art therapists often employ visual arts like painting, sculpting and drawing, they may also make use of other forms of creative expression, such as:

  • Dance
  • Making and listening to music
  • Drama
  • Vocalization

Art Therapy Side Effects and Risks?

In general, art therapy is regarded as a safe and effective complementary therapy, however, because art therapy can dredge up uncomfortable emotions and memories it’s important to work with a qualified therapist who can prepare you for what might occur.  Although most people experience benefits like lowered stress, increased self awareness and less depression, in rare cases, working through intense emotions can worsen mental health.

You may have an elevated risk for complications if...

  • you experience panic attacks
  • you experience flashbacks
  • you experience very realistic nightmares
  • you have recently experienced trauma or abuse
  • you have psychosis or borderline personality disorder6

What to Look for in an Art Therapist

An art therapist should have a master’s degree or higher in art therapy or a master’s degree or higher in counseling with a specialization in art therapy.

Ask your doctor or mental health professional for recommendations or contact The American Art Therapy Association to find a credentialed therapist working in your area.7

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Page last updated Oct 23, 2012

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