Art is a powerful therapeutic tool. We have been creating art since the beginning of time. Human beings and art are fused together, inseparable from each other. Have you ever wondered why? Have you ever wondered what life might be like without art?
Art is a tool for communication, self-expression, and healing and has been for thousands of years. It was only in the 1940s when art therapy was formally recognised. During that time, doctors were noticing how people with mental illness often expressed themselves in drawings and other artworks, which led many to explore the use of art as a healing strategy.
Any art therapist knows the value in art making, and how incredibly comforting and soothing it can be. However, many people are still unfamiliar with what art therapy is and how it can help them. Here are some ways art therapy is beneficial, and might be something for you to explore.
First things first, what is art therapy?
“Art Therapy uses creative processes as a safe way to represent your inner experiences, develop awareness, and support personal change. Along with creating art, there is often meditation and visualisation techniques to achieve a relaxed state of mind. Engaging in art therapy is a proven and effective technique to cope with life’s challenges and boost mental health.“
1. Increases self-awareness.
Creating art allows you to acknowledge and recognise feelings that are hiding in your subconscious. You might even feel surprised by what comes up. For example, you might think you’re angry over an issue but once you sit with it and process it, you realise it’s not even that issue at all but something else entirely different. Increasing self-awareness and clarity over our feelings has many benefits. Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. This leads to sounder decisions, stronger relationships, and more effective communication. The more you know yourself the better you are at getting what you really want in life. You are also more able to see life as it is rather than through our unrecognised perceptions of the world.
2. Lowers stress, increases relaxation.
Several studies show that engaging in any sort of visual expression results in the reward pathway in the brain being activated and raises serotonin levels. These benefits don’t just come from making art, they also occur by experiencing art. Observing art can stimulate the creation of new neural pathways and new ways of thinking.
Creating art —music, poetry, writing, dance, painting, clay— can also help you achieve a “flow” state. That feeling of losing yourself when you’re so in the moment and fully present that you forget all sense of time and space. Achieving more flow states is associated with increased happiness, higher intrinsic motivation, greater creativity, and better emotional regulation.
Another reason why creating art is so calming is because it brings you into the present moment thereby mimicking the experience of meditation.This applies to both experienced artists and novices, so no matter your skill level, you’ll be able to feel all the good things that come with making art.
3. Increases self-esteem.
Producing and creating anything gives us a sense of accomplishment. This can be very valuable to improving your self-esteem and confidence. According to a study by Wan Mak and Fancourt from University College London, creating art validates the uniqueness of an individual, which gives rise to a sense of accomplishment and to feelings of self-worth. Also, the arts have been shown to support a sense of social identity, encourage goal-directed behavior, and enhance social resilience.
4. Boosts creativity & critical thinking.
It goes without saying that art and creativity go hand in hand. Every human being is innately creative but we tend to forget this as we get older as we only engage in things we are good at. The fear of failure limits growth and causes anxiety because we are so driven to perform well. When engaging in art therapy the goal is not to be perfect. The aim is not in creating art you would frame in your living room. The aim is in letting our emotions and feelings guide us, giving space to feel and process difficult or painful things. It’s more about the experience in creating art than the end product. As we begin to feel more comfortable creating, even if we aren’t perfect, we allow ourselves the gift of being imperfect. This allows us to grow in other ways. Life mimics art, and the more we can do without having the be perfect, the more we can grow off the page.
Additionally, human beings have been creating art since the beginning of time. Our caves were painted to reflect our lives and communicate messages to others. Current research also reveals that creating art may have served an evolutionary purpose by helping us navigate problems that might arise in the future. The brain is constantly problem-solving and making predictions about what we need to do next. It’s always looking at what to do in order to survive and thrive. When you make art, you’re making a series of decisions — what kind of drawing utensil to use, what color, how to convey a message onto the paper. And after you are interpreting the images and figuring out what it means. This process helps boost our ability to think, reigniting these pathways in our brain to problem solve and finding new ways to do things.
5. Offers an outlet for self-expression.
This is the most obvious benefit of art therapy. We all know art is the best outlet for our emotions. How often have you heard a song that captures our heartbreak better than anything else? How often have you seen a movie that profoundly moved you?
Even if we aren’t musicians or directors, the world of art is so open, diverse and welcoming. It welcomes us in the warm and inviting arms. It allows us to absorb and feel inspired by others as well as unleash the pain inside of us. It’s a wonderful process of give and take.
We all need an outlet for our emotions. It’s important to find a way to allow our emotions to be released without having them build up in our minds and bodies. Having a creative outlet helps you deal with anxiety and stress, gives you a sense of purpose, and helps make space to overcome obstacles. According to Forbes magazine, “writing helps people manage their negative emotions in a productive way, and painting or drawing helps people express trauma or experiences that they find too difficult to put into words” (Stahl, 2018).
Art is a sensory bodily experience that allows us to unleash whatever we might be feeling. This can be done independently but it can be beneficial to see an art therapist who can guide you to safely explore what might be difficult and find new ways to get that emotion out of you and on to paper. From here, it creates distance, it provides a new perspective on an old wound. It is the start of healing.