Have you ever been captivated by a beautiful painting and felt as if your whole being just went on “pause”? Or perhaps you’ve seen an image so powerful and stunning that you couldn’t take your eyes off it. If you were placed into a brain scanner during those moments, the scans would show that many areas of your brain were “lighting up” at the same time with firing neurons and connections.
Art evokes complex reactions in your brain as you view it. Your mind tries to analyze the representations that you see, touch, hear, or smell. Is that a face? A flower? In engaging so many parts of your brain, your body—controlled by your brain—is empowered to respond.
The benefits of art as a form of creativity and self-expression are well-known. Art has been part of human culture for thousands of years and ancient cave art exists on every continent in the world except Antarctica(1). Today, art is in homes, schools, offices, public spaces, and museums.
But did you know that art as a form of therapy has many health benefits for both the mind and body? While it’s unlikely that you immediately connected the ideas of art therapy and neuroscience, we can thank the advancements of brain scanning technologies for helping us understand how art can improve your health.
Art therapy is a way of engaging your brain to promote self-healing of your body’s physical symptoms(2). It can enhance your physical, mental, and emotional well-being through self-expression. This can help you manage unwanted behaviors, reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and achieve deep insight. It involves creating art or using creative processes, along with the guidance of a trained therapist, to provide relief from mental health issues or other factors disrupting your well-being.
This isn’t about being asked to interpret inkblots in a therapist’s office, a common misperception about art therapy. Rather, art therapy uses interactive methods that combine creative arts with medical and psychological practices to help patients find relief from specific health problems.
Art therapists undergo extensive training in the use of art techniques and the theories of human development, psychology, and counseling(3).
The patient-therapist relationship is a critical component of art therapy. The therapist supports the patient through their art experiences, leading to new understandings of their mind-body connections. This may happen individually or in group settings, depending on the issues being addressed. Art therapy may also involve access to art studios or spaces designed to allow a patient to explore different mediums and forms of expression.
If you’re looking for a formal definition, the American Art Therapy Association defines “Art Therapy” as(4):
“ . . . an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship”.
Art has a powerful impact on your brain that can influence the state of your body through the mind-body connection. Advances in neuroscience show that the brain’s response to creating or viewing art can influence health outcomes, speed healing, and enable people to better cope with their health crises(5).
For example, thephysical symptoms of anxiety like nausea, headaches, and a suppressed immune system, can be influenced by art therapy.
A randomized controlled study of 60 adult women with anxiety showed significant decreases in anxiety symptoms after 10 to 12 art therapy sessions(6). The researchers also found that these benefits remained at a follow-up meeting three months later. There, the women were able to accept their emotions more easily and were able to engage in goal-oriented activities. Both of these changes are associated with decreased anxiety levels. The two main forms of art therapy used in this study were drawing and working with clay.
Other studies have shown that school-based art therapy programs can have significant outcomes for students with anxiety and behavioral issues. A 2020 review of school-based art therapy programs looked at the results of 247 participants and found that art therapy effectively reduced anxiety and improved self-concept among students aged 5 to 12(7). There were improvements in student attitudes towards school and fewer behavioral issues. The review calls for more controlled studies to better evaluate art therapy as a treatment option for school children experiencing difficulties.
It is now widely understood that trauma is both a physical and mental experience. Trauma overwhelms an individual's ability to cope. A person may directly undergo an event like a car crash or abuse, or they may witness such an event. Sometimes this trauma causes a person to remain stuck in “biological and psychological survival mode”(8).
Trauma and post-traumatic stress may manifest in many forms including negative thoughts, anxiety, fear, anger, shame, and even survivor’s guilt(8). Neuroscience has shown that this trauma affects many parts of the brain at once, and in turn the body often mirrors physical symptoms that correspond with the systems these brain regions control.
Art therapy creates a safe space for trauma victims to look at what has affected them from different angles through the creative process of making art. This can help guide their attention into the present, foster relaxation, and decrease their reactivity to stress triggers(8).
A 2019 study evaluated the short- and long-term effects of art therapy on 204 American military service people suffering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury(9). The study found that even the initial art therapy sessions that involved making masks and montage paintings helped with identity and self-expression. Longer-term therapy using a variety of techniques such as group sessions, open studio, and individual sessions was important for deeper issues of guilt, grief, loss, and trauma. Art can release emotions in ways that interviews and talking cannot.
Many health conditions result in pain and stress as patients try to cope with debilitating symptoms or challenging treatments.Cancer is no exception. A serious health crisis such as cancer can be devastating for many people and their loved ones. Because your physical and mental health are closely intertwined, art therapy can help refocus your attention and promote bodily healing.
A 2019 study looked at when and for how long cancer patients felt the benefits of art therapy. The study reviewed 11 research papers spanning 20 years, where art therapy was used as a complementary form of medical treatment for cancer patients(10). These studies reveal that art therapy reduces anxiety, depression, and pain by providing an outlet patients can control via their art. Usually, the type of art therapy shifts as the cancer treatments change to support a broader expression of patient experiences. The results indicate that immediate benefits are felt during and shortly after the art therapy sessions, which include:
The study also found that art therapy has long-term benefits for patients. This included building their confidence and creating a renewed sense of wholeness (i.e., not being seen as just a disease, but as a person). These effects can lead to permanent changes among patients in their ability to cope.
And it’s not just the patients who can benefit from art therapy. Caregivers and even oncology professionals suffer from high stress treating cancer patients, which can affect patient outcomes.
Another 2019 study offered 25 professional and nine informal cancer caregivers the opportunity to experience either a 45-minute coloring session or open-studio art therapy(11). Participants reported decreases in anxiety, stress, and burnout while experiencing improvements in mood and focus. Further controlled studies are needed to quantify the effects of consistent art therapy opportunities for caregivers. This study’s positive results suggest that having a dedicated space in oncology wards available to professionals and caregivers could improve patient outcomes.
If you’re dealing with complex health issues, stress, trauma, or are the caregiver of someone who is, then art therapy might be a useful path for you to explore. An art therapist can guide you in choosing the type of creative activity that may offer the greatest benefit for your specific issues.
But you don’t have to wait to experience the benefits of art. Even the simple act of viewing art can trigger pleasure centers in your brain(12). Viewing art that you consider beautiful increases blood flow to your brain that is detectable on brain scans. This means you can benefit from art starting today.
You may also reap other mind-body connection benefits throughnature therapy, pet therapy, mindfulness,meditation, and mild exercise forms such asyoga. Extended periods of stress may also respond to wellness supplements likeashwagandha.
Art therapy builds on a growing body of evidence that suggests our minds can help heal our physical ailments. Because art engages many parts of the brain simultaneously, it also engages many parts of the body that we may not even be capable of controlling voluntarily. As scientists begin to unravel the mind-body connection and its implications for wellness, more effective art interventions will become part of medical treatments and support plans given to patients, caregivers, and even their healthcare professionals.
You don’t have to wait for a formal art therapy session to benefit from art. Try adding some art into your day and see what happens next.
Sue Senger, PhD - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice