Art Therapy: Create To Recover

2 min read · 3 sections


“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” –Aristotle

Although people have benefited from art therapy for a long time, it’s become a more well-known term in the past few years. Visit any bookstore or arts and crafts store, and you will see a wide selection of detailed, intricate coloring books marketed for adults to relieve stress. While these coloring books can be a great way to pass the time and may even help lower stress, they can’t replace real art therapy with a Registered Art Therapist. An art therapist offers a deeper level of support than you can find on your own.

What is art therapy?

The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.”

According to a study published in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 45 minutes of art making reduces stress levels in the body. This holds true for people with and without artistic experience and for both men and women of all ages. The study tested the cortisol levels in participants’ saliva before and after art making. Higher cortisol levels are associated with higher stress. After the art therapy session, participants had lower cortisol levels. The participants also self-reported lower stress levels and improved mood through written responses.

The benefits of art therapy are more than just lower stress levels. Art therapy provides a non-verbal way to express pain, anxiety, or other emotional issues. It offers a way to work through tough issues that can’t be put into words or written down. Art therapy can also teach and develop skills needed to improve mental health such as introspection, self-awareness, and coping methods.

Art Therapy and Addiction

People struggling with addiction can benefit greatly from art therapy. Art therapy offers a way to work through some of the 12 Steps. A big part of the 12 Steps is self-reflection which art therapy facilitates. Art making can help make some of the abstract ideas addressed in the 12 Steps, such as denial, acceptance, and faith, more tangible. Through art making, participants can explore these complex concepts. Art therapy can also help with the common co-occurring mental health disorders that people struggling with addiction face such as depression and PTSD.

Meet Registered Art Therapist Eden Flora, BFA, MPS, ART who leads an art therapy group at the American Addiction Center’s Oxford Treatment Center inpatient facility in Mississippi. She became interested in art therapy because she always found art healing personally and wanted to help other people feel the same. Flora says she has three goals for every group she teaches:
  • Facilitate therapeutic art making
  • Exercise self-awareness skills
  • Develop introspection

What does each session look like? An art therapy group isn’t just about completing an art project. As Flora explains to her group, “our goal is not to make something beautiful but to connect with ourselves.” Flora begins her group with a mindfulness exercise to get participants into the right mood.

Each project is specifically chosen to meet the needs of the population of the group. Participants use a variety of materials and mediums—paint, collage, colored pencils, and sometimes clay. Choosing the material for projects is also important. For example, if participants tend to be impulsive, Flora may choose colored pencils instead of markers because colored pencils require people to slow down and consider the process more.

For a recent project, participants created greeting cards to represent a non-material gift they would like to give themselves. Participants were also encouraged to write a note on the inside to themselves about the gift and why they deserved it.

The group ends with the opportunity for participants to share what they created and why.

Art therapy isn’t just for artists or people experienced in art making; art therapy is available and useful for everyone. In the study mentioned above, participants who had no experience in art making saw the same benefits. The final product isn’t the most important part of art therapy. You don’t need to walk away with a masterpiece to see benefits. The art making process and emotions or ideas it evokes are the most important and most beneficial.Flora offers a sports metaphor to those who are skeptical. Your friends invite you to play a basketball game in the park. Even if you are not tall or athletic, if you approach the game with a positive attitude, you will still benefit! You’ll get exercise from running up and down the court. Being out in the sunshine gives you a good dose of vitamin D. And, you get to have fun with your friends.

The same is true with art therapy. If you choose to participate with a good attitude and open mind, you’ll get something out of it.

Find an Art Therapist

If you are interested in trying art therapy, make sure you find an art therapist with the appropriate education and experience. You can find an art therapist through the American Art Therapy Association’s Art Therapist Locator.

You can learn more about art therapy on the American Art Therapy Association website or at the Trauma-Informed Practices & Expressive Arts Therapy Institute.

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