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What is Art Therapy? Art Therapy, and How Art Therapy Helps

Updated: May 21


an illustrated person of colour painting a rainbow during online art therapy session

Understanding Art Therapy as a Valuable Mental Health Service:


Art is often seen as a means of self-expression, a way to create something beautiful, and a source of inspiration. But did you know that art can also be a powerful tool for healing and promoting mental health? That's where Art Therapy comes in. Art Therapy is a form of mental health treatment that uses art-making as a means of self-expression and exploration. As more and more people ask what really is Art Therapy: they discover benefits of Art Therapy, and how Art Therapy helps.


Throughout history, art has been used as a means of healing. From ancient cave paintings to modern-day art installations, people have long recognized the therapeutic benefits of creating art. Art Therapy takes this idea one step further by using art as a means of promoting mental and emotional well-being. By engaging in the creative process, participants can explore their thoughts and feelings in a safe and supportive environment.


Art Therapy can benefit a wide range of individuals, including those who have experienced trauma, individuals with anxiety and depression, those who are neurodivergent, and individuals who are seeking self-exploration and personal growth. With the guidance of an Art Therapist, individuals can develop coping skills, process trauma, and improve their mental and emotional well-being. If you're interested in exploring the benefits of Art Therapy for yourself or a loved one, there are a number of resources available to help you find an Art Therapist and learn more about this powerful form of mental health treatment.


The Healing Power of Art Throughout History:

Throughout recorded history people have been using pictures and stories as healing rituals. For instance, ancient civilizations used storytelling to pass down information from generation to generation and help make sense of the world around them. In traditional healing practices, such as shamanism, pictures and stories are used to help individuals connect with their inner selves and to find healing through symbolic representation.


Early recorded art, such as cave paintings, also tells a story and provides visual cues about what society was experiencing. These paintings depict scenes of everyday life, such as hunting and gathering, and provide insight into the social and economic structures of these early civilizations. They also tell stories of mythological creations and supernatural events, which were likely used to explain natural phenomena and to provide comfort and reassurance to individuals in times of uncertainty. In many ways these early forms of art served as a type of therapy providing individuals with a means of expressing their fears, hopes and desires. Today, art continues to serve as a powerful tool for storytelling and can help individuals to process their experiences and connect with others in a meaningful way.


What is Art Therapy?


Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy, the psychological treatment mental health issues, and involves a qualified Art Therapist. An Art Therapist focuses on treating mental health issues through the combination of art-making, listening, and counselling in a safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment. The Art Therapist may give art-making suggestions that focus on feelings and beliefs, rather than skill. These suggestions are intended to halt, manage or alter the course of the initial symptom or problem that is causing the person to seek professional help. The process of creating an image may help to let go of defences and barriers so that underlying psychological issues can be brought to the surface and processed. The Art Therapist uses the created image as an entry-point for a reflective discussion, which can help integrate a cognitive understanding of the emotional experience. Through the encouragement of thoughts and considerations important themes and awareness around the causes, contexts and consequences of the presenting problem can be discovered. The Art Therapist listens carefully and provides observations and feedback to support psychological growth and healing.


In Art Therapy, the central idea is that all humans, regardless of skill, have the ability to express themselves. Participants do not need any previous experience or expertise in art. Any expression of visual creativity and imagination is welcomed. A wide variety of materials, ranging from resistive materials to fluid materials, can be used within an Art Therapy session. Resistive materials have the ability to withstand the force or effect of art-making. An example would be a wood carving, the wood would be resistive to the force or effect of the carving material. On the other side of the spectrum is a fluid material, a material that has no fixed shape and yields easily to external force. An example of this would be watercolours, where the ink is easy moved around by the addition of water and very little pressure is required. Any material such as modelling clay, pens, inks, pencils, oil pastels, photography, and digital media that fall under this spectrum can be used in Art Therapy.


Will Art Therapy help?

Now that you know "What is Art Therapy?" find out how it helps!


Art Therapy can be used to address a wide range of mental health concerns and can help facilitate self-exploration, personal growth, and emotional healing. One of the primary benefits of Art Therapy is its ability to promote self-expression. Individuals who may have difficult expressing themselves verbally can use art as a means of communication. Art Therapy can help individuals explore and express their feelings, thoughts, and emotions in a non-verbal way.


Art Therapy can also help individuals to develop a better understanding of themselves and their experiences. Through the process of creating art, individuals can gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. This can help them to identify patterns and themes in their lives and to develop strategies for coping with difficult situations.


Art Therapy can also be used to address specific mental health concerns. For example, it has been shown to be effective in treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. Art Therapy can help individuals resolve daily struggles, enhancing self-understanding, problem-solving, improving interpersonal skills, increasing self-confidence, relieve stress and manage behavioural problems.


Art Therapy can also provide a cathartic experience for processing bad memories and experiences from your past. Making-art can help individuals channel their emotions and release pent-up feelings in a safe and controlled manner. This can help to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and tension, and provide a seven of relief and release. By expressing their emotions through art, individuals may gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, which can lead to greater self-awareness and personal growth.


Art Therapy has also been shown to lower cortisol levels in the body, which is the hormone associated with stress. High levels of cortisol can have a negative impact on the body and can lead to a range of health problems, including anxiety, depression, and fatigue. By engaging in Art Therapy, individuals can reduce their cortisol levels and promote feelings of relaxation and well-being. The creative process can be a meditative and calming experience, which can help to promote a sense of peace and reduce stress. By lowering cortisol levels in the body, Art Therapy can have a positive impact on both mental and physical health.


Art Therapists also come equipped with a high level of training and tools that can help client’s accomplish their therapeutic goals. The training gives them a working knowledge of human development, attachment styles, trauma, visual arts, applications of art media, and mental health within the context of therapy. With this knowledge Art Therapists are able to gather information, evaluate clients needs, build therapeutic rapport, and assist in setting realistic goals and treatment plans.


Having a good rapport with your Art Therapist is an essential component of the therapeutic process. A positive therapeutic relationship is built on trust, mutual respect, and a shared goal of personal growth and healing. When an you feel comfortable and safe with your therapist, you are more likely to benefit from the experience. This may be because you are more likely to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences openly and honestly. This can help your therapist to gain a deeper understanding of your needs and concerns, and to develop strategies that are tailored to your unique situation. By building a sense of trust with your therapist, you can increase your chances of benefiting from the Art Therapy process and achieving your goals for personal growth and healing.


Who can benefit from Art Therapy?


Art Therapy is a powerful tool that can help individuals to explore their emotions and experiences in a safe and supportive environment. Whether it be for LGBTQ individuals, those with anxiety and depression, or individuals who have experienced trauma, Art Therapy can provide a means of self-expression and self-acceptance. Through the creative process, individuals can connect with their authentic selves and gain a deeper understanding of their mental health.


For LGBTQ individuals, Art Therapy can be a powerful tool for self-expression and self-acceptance. Art Therapy can provide a safe space for individuals to explore their thoughts and feelings around their sexual orientation or gender identity, and address any trauma or discrimination they may have experienced. The creative process can help individuals connect with their authentic selves and to express their identity in a meaningful way.


People with anxiety and depression can also benefit from Art Therapy. Art Therapy can help individuals reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, as well as to explore the root causes of their depression or anxiety. The creative process can provide a sense of control and empowerment, which can help individuals to feel more confident and capable of managing their mental health.


Individuals who have experienced trauma can also benefit from Art Therapy. Through the creative process, individuals can explore their emotions and experiences, and gain a deeper understanding of how trauma has affected their lives. Creating art can also help individuals to regain a sense of control over their lives. Trauma can leave individuals feeling powerless and helpless and Art Therapy allows individuals to take control of their creative process and create something that is meaningful and purposeful. Art Therapy can also help these individuals to reframe their experiences in a more positive light. Through art, individuals can explore different perspectives and find new ways to look at their trauma. This can help to reduce feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame that often accompany trauma. Additionally, individuals can use various materials, such as paint, clay, and markers, to create art that represents their thoughts and feelings about their trauma. Studies have shown that art-making can provide both affective and sensory experiences, which allow for client to unload overwhelming emotions and work through issues.


In addition to processing trauma, Art Therapy can also help individuals to develop coping skills to manage their symptoms. Individuals may have learned certain coping mechanisms or behaviours to deal with their trauma and related symptoms. However, some of these mechanisms or strategies can be harmful and learn to more negative consequences For example, an individual may turn to substance abuse or self-harm as a way to cope with their trauma. Through creating art with an Art Therapist, individuals can explore new ways to cope with stress and trauma. Through the development of new strategies, individuals can improve their mental and emotional well being and move towards a more positive future.


Additonally, Art Therapy can be beneficial for individuals who are neaurodivergent, such as those with autism or ADHD. The creative process can provide a calming and meditative experience, which can help individuals regulation their emotions and manage their symptoms. Art Therapy can also help individuals to express themselves in a non-verbal way, which can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with communication.


There are many different reasons why people seek out mental health services and choose therapy as a way to address their mental health concerns. Some individuals may be struggling with a specific mental health diagnosis, such as anxiety or depression, while others may be dealing with more complex issues, such as trauma, identity issues, or life transitions. Art Therapy is a versatile and can benefit individuals in various stages of their mental health journey by providing a safe space for individuals to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.


Regardless of the reason, seeking mental health serves is often a way for individuals to address the impact of stress and adversity on their mental health. Mental health is influenced by a range of factors, including genetics, environment, social support, and coping strategies. When these factors are not sufficient to manage the demands of life, individuals may begin to experience symptoms that impact their daily functioning and well-being.

People often seek help when their internal and external resources and coping strategies feel exhausted, overwhelmed, or deficient in some way. For example, an individual may have a genetic predisposition to anxiety but may not experience significant symptoms until they encounter a particularly stressful life event, such as a job loss or a relationship breakdown. In this case, seeking therapy can help the individual management the symptoms of anxiety and develop new coping strategies.


For some individuals, talk therapy may not be the most effective way to address their mental health concerns. While talking about one’s thoughts and feelings can be helpful for many people, some individuals may find it difficult to express themselves through words or may struggle to make meaningful connections between their thoughts and emotions. In these cases, Art Therapy can be a beneficial alternative or complement to traditional talk therapy.


Where can I find an Art Therapist?


Individuals who are interested in pursuing Art Therapy can find a qualified Art Therapist through various sources. One option is to search for Art Therapists through professional organizations such as the Canadian Art Therapy Association or the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association. These organizations provide directories of certified Art Therapists, as well as information on training and qualifications to become an Art Therapist.


Another option is to contact mental health clinics or treatment centres that offer Art Therapy as part of their services. Many hospitals, rehabilitation centres, and community mental health centres employ Art Therapists as part of their mental health treatment teams.


Art Therapists can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, schools, community centres, and private practice. In hospital settings, Art Therapists may work with patients who are dealing with chronic illness, pain, or trauma. In schools, Art Therapists may work with children who are struggling with emotional or behavioural issues. In private practice, Art Therapists may work with individuals or groups, providing a safe and supportive space for clients to explore their emotions or express themselves through art.


Art Therapist may also specialize in specific areas of mental health, such as trauma, or addition. For example, an Art Therapist who specializes in trauma ay work with individuals who have experiences sexual or physical abuse, using art as a way to help clients process and heal from their experiences.


The Advantage of Seeing An Art Therapist in Private Practice:


Seeing an Art Therapist in private practice can have several advantages for individuals who are seeking mental health treatment. Here are some of the benefits of seeing an Art Therapist in private practice:


1. Personalized Treatment: When seeing an Art Therapist in private practice, individuals can receive personalized treatment that is tailored to their specific needs and goals. Private practitioners typically have more flexibility in their treatment approach and can work with clients to develop a treatment plan that meets their unique needs.


2. Increased Privacy: Private practice settings offer increased privacy and confidentiality compared to other settings. Clients can feel more comfortable sharing personal information and emotions in a private setting, which can help to facilitate the healing process.


3. Greater Availability: Private practice Art Therapists may have more availability for appointments and may offer more flexible scheduling options. This can be particularly beneficial for individuals who have busy schedules or live in areas with limited access to mental health services.


4. Longer Sessions: Private practice Art Therapists may offer longer therapy sessions compared to other settings, which can allow for more in-depth exploration and processing of emotions.


5. Personal Connection: Seeing an Art Therapist in private practice can allow for a more personal connection between the therapist and the client. This can help to build trust and rapport, which is essential for effective therapy.


6. Creative Freedom: Private practice Art Therapists may have more flexibility in the art materials and techniques they use in therapy sessions. This can allow for greater creative freedom and can help to foster a sense of self-expression and exploration.

In conclusion, seeing an Art Therapist in private practice can offer several advantages for individuals seeking mental health treatment. Personalized treatment, increased privacy, greater availability, longer sessions, personal connection, and creative freedom are some of the benefits of seeing an Art Therapist in a private practice setting.


Combining Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Art Therapy:


Art Therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are two powerful therapeutic approaches that can work in tandem to help individuals explore and restructure their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. When integrated, these approaches can provide clients with a holistic and effective treatment plan.


In Art Therapy, the creative process is used to help clients explore and express their thoughts and emotions. Art can serve as a visual representation of personal construct systems, or the internal frameworks that individuals use to make sense of the world around them. By creating an image that represents a negative feeling, for example, clients can begin to identify their own biases and beliefs that may be contributing to negative behaviours or emotions.


Once these biases are identified, the therapist can use CBT techniques to help the client restructure their beliefs and replace them with more positive or realistic expectations. The therapist may engage the client in a discussion to co-discover faulty logic, test hypotheses, create new means, broaden perspectives, and decatastrophize. By working together, the therapist and client can identify commonalities within the client’s perception and create new alternatives to replace or restructure these concepts.

As the art is revisited and revised to include new alternative perspectives, the client can gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts and emotions. The artwork can serve as a tangible reminder of the progress that has been made and the new perspectives that have been gained.


The synergy of Art Therapy and CBT can be a powerful tool for clients to gain insight into their thoughts and emotions and to develop strategies to manage them. By integrating these two therapeutic approaches, clients can explore their inner selves through the creative process and work with the therapist to restructure their beliefs and behaviours in a positive and meaningful way.


Combining Dialectical Behaviour Therapy with Art Therapy:


Art Therapy can be a highly effective tool for individuals who are struggling with mental health issues, and it can incorporate a variety of therapeutic techniques to help clients achieve their goals. One approach that can be particularly effective is using dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) techniques within Art Therapy sessions.


DBT is a type of therapy that was developed to help individuals who struggle with emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, and relationship difficulties. It focuses on four key areas: mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation.


Here are some ways that Art Therapy can incorporate DBT techniques:


1. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and accepting things as they are. Art Therapy can incorporate mindfulness techniques by encouraging clients to focus on the process of creating art rather than the outcome. This can help individuals to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment.


2. Distress Tolerance: Distress tolerance is the ability to withstand emotional pain and discomfort without resorting to harmful behaviors. Art Therapy can be a helpful tool for developing distress tolerance skills by providing a safe and non-judgmental space for clients to express and process their emotions.


3. Interpersonal Effectiveness: Interpersonal effectiveness involves developing healthy communication and relationship skills. Art Therapy can be a useful tool for practicing interpersonal effectiveness by providing a safe space to explore and express feelings, and by encouraging clients to communicate their thoughts and emotions through their art.


4. Emotional Regulation: Emotional regulation involves learning to manage intense emotions in a healthy way. Art Therapy can be an effective tool for developing emotional regulation skills by providing a safe and creative outlet for individuals to express and process their emotions.


In conclusion, incorporating DBT techniques into Art Therapy sessions can be highly effective for individuals who are struggling with mental health issues. Mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation are all areas that can be addressed through Art Therapy, and can help individuals to develop the skills they need to manage their emotions and improve their overall well-being.


Art Therapy as a Trauma Informed Approach:


A trauma-informed approach is a practice of care that recognizes and responds to the impact of trauma on individuals. It is a way of understanding that many people have experienced trauma at some point in their lives, and that this trauma can affect their mental, physical, and emotional health.


Trauma-informed care involves creating a safe and supportive environment for individuals, recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma, and responding in a way that is sensitive to their needs. This approach can be used in a variety of settings, including healthcare, education, and social services.


In Art Therapy, a trauma-informed approach can be incredibly valuable. Art Therapy is a form of therapy that uses art as a means of expressing and processing emotions. For individuals who have experienced trauma, Art Therapy can be a safe and non-threatening way of exploring their experiences and feelings.


A trauma-informed approach in Art Therapy involves creating a safe and supportive environment for the client. This may involve setting clear boundaries, ensuring privacy, and allowing the client to have control over the art materials and process. It also involves recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma, such as hypervigilance, dissociation, and avoidance. The Art Therapist can respond in a way that is sensitive to the client’s needs, such as allowing them to take breaks, providing grounding techniques, and validating their experiences.


Another important aspect of a trauma-informed approach in Art Therapy is understanding the role of the Art Therapist. The therapist should act as a guide and support, allowing the client to explore their own experiences at their own pace. It is important for the therapist to avoid imposing their own interpretations or judgments on the client’s art.


Art Therapy and Neuroscience:


Art Therapy has been shown to have a positive impact on the brain, particularly individuals who have experienced trauma. Neuroscience research has shown that creative art can activate the reward centre of the brain, which releases feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. These chemicals can help to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety, which are often associated with trauma. Additionally, creating art can activate the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for regulating emotions and making decisions. This can help individuals to process their trauma in a more productive way. Art Therapy has also been shown to decrease activity in the amygadala, which is responsible for the fear response. By reducing activity in the amygdala, individuals may experience less anxiety and fear related to their trauma. Overall, Art Therapy has a positive impact on the brain and can help individuals to process their trauma in a more productive and healthy way.


In addition to the positive impact on the brain chemistry, creating art can also help to form new neuro-pathways in the brain of individuals who have experienced trauma. Trauma can cause the brain to become stuck in a pattern of negative thinking and behaviour. Art Therapy can help break this pattern by providing a new way to express emotions and process trauma. When individuals engage in art-making, they are stimulating the brain to form new connections and pathways. By forming new neuropathways, individuals can break free from negative thought patterns and move towards a new positive future. The formation of new neuropathways can be a powerful tool in helping individuals to heal from trauma.


The Self-Regulation Elements of Art Therapy: Storytelling, Movement, Sound and Silence:


Art Therapy is a form of therapy that integrates art-making with psychological therapy, and it contains self-regulation elements such as storytelling, movement sound, and silence. These elements can help individuals express themselves, manage their emotions, and develop a sense of empowerment.


Self-regulation is an essential part of Art Therapy, and it involves the ability to manage and regulate one’s emotions and behaviour. Storytelling is an effective way to promote self-regulation, as it allows clients to express their experiences and perspectives, which can help them process and integrate difficult emotions.


Movement is another element that can promote self-regulation, as it provides a physical outlet for emotions and can help release tension and stress. The repetitions of movements and patterns can form a calming and self-regulating rhythm for individuals. For example, a client may use a brush to make repetitive strokes on a canvas or use a palette knife to create a textured surface. This repetition can create a sense of continuity, which can help individuals feel more grounded and connected to their bodies. As individuals engage in the creative process, they can develop a sense of flow.


Additionally, the rhythm in Art Therapy can be connected to the breath and begin to synchronize their movements with their breathing. This can create a sense of relaxation and calm, which can be helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or stress.


Movement is a fundamental aspect of human life, and it plays a crucial role in our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Our sensory perception of movement helps use to interpret and make sense of the world around us and to connect with out bodies in meaningful ways. The movement in the process of making art can help individuals develop a deeper connection with their bodies and emotions. As individuals engage in movement, they become more aware of their bodily sensations and can begin to identity and process emotions that may have been previously suppressed or ignored.


Sound and silence are also important self-regulation elements in Art Therapy. Sound can be used to create a calming and soothing environment, and it can be used to promote self-awareness and mindfulness. Silence, on the other hand, can provide a pause for reflection and can help clients develop a sense of inner calm and peace.


Storytelling, movement, sound and silence are all primitive components that have been part of human evolution for thousands of years. They are deeply rooted in our culture and have been used for centuries to communicate ideas, emotions, and experiences. These components are also important tools for healing and growth and many Art Therapists have incorporated them into their practice.


The Value of Art Therapy: Benefits, Approaches, and Applications:


In conclusion, Art Therapy is a powerful and effective form of therapy that has been used throughout history to promote healing and well-being. Today, Art Therapy is recognized as a valuable form of mental health treatment that can help individuals of all ages and backgrounds to explore and express their emotions in a safe and supportive environment.


Art Therapy is a unique form of therapy that combines the creative process of making art with traditional therapeutic techniques to address a wide range of mental health concerns. Through the use of various art materials and techniques, individuals can explore their thoughts and feelings in a non-verbal way, making it an ideal form of therapy for individuals who struggle with verbal communication.


Art Therapy benefits a wide range of individuals, including those who have experienced trauma, individuals with anxiety and depression, those who are neurodivergent, and individuals who are seeking self-exploration and personal growth. With the help of an Art Therapist, individuals can develop coping skills, process trauma, and improve their mental and emotional well-being.


In today's world, finding an Art Therapist has never been easier. You can find an Art Therapist in various settings, including private practice, community mental health centres, hospitals, and schools. With the advantages of Art Therapy in private practice, individuals can receive specialized and individualized treatment in a safe and supportive environment. Combining Art Therapy with other forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or dialectical behavioural therapy, can also provide an integrated approach to treatment. Finally, the self-regulation elements of Art Therapy, including storytelling, movement, sound, and silence, make it a unique and effective form of therapy that can help individuals to connect with their authentic selves and promote healing and growth.


If you are experiencing any form of mental health issue that is impacting your daily life, or you are interested in exploring your world more creatively, consider reaching out to a licensed Art Therapist to find out how Art Therapy can help you on your individual healing journey.

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