Art Therapy: Healing Through Self-Expression

When you were a child, a box of crayons and pad of paper probably inspired pure glee. You likely reveled in the chance to build your own masterpiece, spending hours happily coloring, designing and imagining. There were no rules … the possibilities were endless. And while the finished product probably had you beaming with pride, it was the act of creating it that was exciting and freeing.

Art therapy harnesses the power of expressing yourself in this way. On the surface, it may seem that you’re simply “making something nice” when you, say, paint or draw. The creation process, however, can prompt you to dig deep and express and explore your inner self in new ways—unleash buried feelings, showcase your true self and so on—that may be otherwise difficult.

“We can sometimes get lost in our words and the stories we tell ourselves, particularly when we are facing difficulties,” says Sharon Alpert, LICSW, a life management therapist at Canyon Ranch Lenox. “Being engaged in art circumvents that script and allows us to immerse ourselves fully in our experience. It reaches a deeper place inside of us that is often untouched and unedited.”

For example, while you may find it hard to put your feelings about a tough experience from your past into words, sculpting a figure out of clay or piecing together a collage might help you convey your sadness, regret or anger clearly—giving you the much-needed chance to release those negative emotions. Many find art therapy just as effective (and sometimes even more so) as other practices that help us uncover different aspects of our personalities and cope with challenges or traumas.

Anyone can benefit from art therapy—whether you’re struggling with a serious circumstance, like grieving the loss of a loved one, feeling stressed by everyday demands or just in need of a little boost. Focusing on those smooth lines that appear with the strokes of a paint brush or composing a perfect picture when looking through the lens of a camera promotes mindfulness—a powerful healing practice. Being more aware in the present moment, perhaps as you thread the beads of a necklace you’re making, also helps quiet your “fight or flight” stress response, which, in turn, can improve your physical and emotional health. What’s more, researchers have discovered that creative expression can increase the “feel-good” hormone dopamine in the brain.

For those reasons, art therapy has been shown to have a positive impact on those dealing with conditions including autism and dementia; physical and learning disabilities; post-traumatic stress disorder; cancer; and depression. Scrapbooking, knitting, woodworking or another type of creative activity may help ease the struggles—physical and mental—related to these conditions by calming the mind and body, redirecting thoughts or just helping the artist feel happy in the moment. The experience is quite personal. Perhaps it fosters a deeper connection within you, nurturing your spirit and helping you feel fulfilled in a way that other activities and hobbies may not.

Art therapy can occur in a group setting, facilitated by a skilled therapist, and feel very similar to an art class, which can help you be more social and communicative; in other cases, a one-on-one session may be more beneficial to ensure the therapist has ample time to work with you as emotions surface during the creative process. You might instead find that engaging in an artistic endeavor on your own is therapeutic enough to help you let go of feelings you’ve been holding onto, reach new insights about yourself or inspire you to make a change in some way. Regardless, no prior art experience or talent is required; both experienced artists and beginners can reap benefits after just one session.

Looking at someone else’s art—at a museum, gallery or studio—may provide a similar emotional release. Sometimes viewing others’ creative works can help us heal through the message evoked or the medium used. Maybe it’s the expression of the person in the photograph that intrigues you or the pretty pattern in the wood grain of a handmade rocking chair that comforts you. It’s the connection you feel to the art that, hopefully, impacts you in a meaningful way.

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