Why art therapy may be what you need right now

A few months ago, I was having some difficulties with a good friend of mine. He found it necessary to pull back from our friendship, and I was feeling hurt and sad.

Normally, I’d write about situations like this in my journal. But writing about it just didn’t seem to be working for me. I just keep going over the same ground, over and over again. I didn’t feel any better when I was done writing.

But I discovered a new “therapy” that did help…

I’ve never considered myself an artist. By the time I was twelve or so, I’d had enough bad experiences with bad art teachers to leave me feeling like an artistic dunce.

If you’re in the same boat, read on…

After reading some recent research into just how “doing art” affects the brain and the emotions, whether you consider yourself “good at art” or not, you may want to grab the kid’s coloring books and crayons or just start doodling away…

How art soothes the mind

Girija Kaimal is a Drexel University professor and a researcher in art therapy. She has led art sessions with members of the military suffering from traumatic brain injury, and with caregivers of cancer patients.

Kaimal is a believer that art is for everybody.

“Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate — is good for you,” she says.

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Here are four reasons she believes this, based on her research.

It helps you imagine a more hopeful future. Kaimal says that the human brain is essentially “a predictive machine,” wired to help us survive – we can predict physical threats and avoid them.

“ …  what our brain is doing every day, every moment, consciously and unconsciously, is trying to imagine what is going to come and preparing yourself to face that,” she says.

This can help us navigate difficult life situations, emotions, and challenges. After all, making art is nothing more than a series of decisions – which color to use, what materials, whether to draw a figure realistically or abstractly.

It activates the reward center of our brain. Art not only helps us survive, but it also helps us thrive. It simply feels good.

In a study with 26 men and women, both artists and non-artists, Kaimal used Functional Infrared Spectroscopy to assess which of three activities — coloring, doodling, and free drawing — activated the brain’s pleasure centers the most.

Doodling was the winner, but not by much. All three activities increased blood flow to the brain’s reward center, located in the prefrontal cortex.

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It lowers stress. When Kaimal and a group of researchers measured cortisol levels in 39 healthy adults (cortisol is our stress hormone), they found that 45 minutes of creating art in a studio with an art therapist significantly lowered cortisol levels.

Do you remember how relaxing it felt to spend time with a coloring book and crayons?

It lets you focus deeply. Making art should induce a state of “flow” – a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – that state where you’re “in the zone.”

“It’s that sense of losing yourself, losing all awareness. You’re so in the moment and fully present that you forget all sense of time and space,” says Kaimal.

She says that being in a flow state “activates several networks including relaxed reflective state, focused attention to task and sense of pleasure.”

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Which “art” to try, and a precaution

Christianne Strang, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama and former president of the American Art Therapy Association, says that there’s no one art medium that’s “better” than another.

“Some days you may want to go home and paint. Other days you might want to sketch,” she says. “Do what’s most beneficial to you at any given time.”

“Just let those lines, shapes, and colors translate your emotional experience into something visual. Use the feelings that you feel in your body, your memories. Because words don’t often get it.”

On the other hand, Strang cautions that “if you are going through serious mental health distress, you should seek guidance from a professional art therapist.”


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Sources:

  1. Feeling Artsy? Here’s How Making Art Helps Your Brain — NPR
  2. Adaptive Response Theory: An Evolutionary Framework for Clinical Research in Art TherapyArt Therapy
  3. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawingThe Arts in Psychotherapy
  4. EEG Correlates of the Flow State: A Combination of Increased Frontal Theta and Moderate Frontocentral Alpha Rhythm in the Mental Arithmetic TaskFrontiers in Psychology

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Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.