Art therapy, sometimes more broadly called expressive arts therapy, is an effective treatment style for people of all ages with numerous physical health and mental health issues. Art therapy uses the process of creating, appreciating, and participating in art-centered activities to promote wanted changes. Art therapy may not offer the type of structured, short-term treatments as other styles of psychotherapy, but it can produce excellent outcomes for those in need.
Central Concepts of Art Therapy
Though art therapy is a multifaceted and multidimensional form of treatment, it has a straightforward central concept: art is healing. Whether the individual in treatment is working to manage their intense symptoms linked to psychosis, their recurrent flashbacks connected to trauma, or their constant cravings for addictive substances, art and art therapy are effective interventions. Because of its power, art therapy is a tool used in countless mental health and human services settings and professions.1
Art therapists and other healthcare providers see the benefit of art in two ways:
- Art in therapy: With art in therapy, the professional uses art to aid the overall therapeutic process by increasing comfort, building rapport with the client, or facilitating some other goals. In these situations, the art is only one part of the treatment plan.
- Art as therapy: In this case, art is the therapy. When art is used as therapy, the goal of the session is to engage in some level of art. Here, the complete treatment plan will center around the art.2
Some therapists will blend both options during their sessions, while others will only opt to use only the art in therapy approach.
Art Helps Convey Messages Words Cannot
Art therapists see the art as a therapeutic option because they see it as a deeper form of communication. Through involvement in art, the clients can express themselves in non-verbal, creative, and imaginative ways. This type of communication can convey a level of insight, information, and wisdom that the person cannot deliver otherwise.3
A person who cannot speak may use art therapy as a way to express the feelings they have been physically unable to divulge. Alternatively, a person who has endured a terrible trauma may struggle to put words to the hurt they suffered, but by engaging in art therapy, they could use sessions to communicate and process their hurt.
Art Therapy Is More than Drawing
Despite the limited view some may have of art therapy, the practice is more than drawing with crayons or painting with watercolors. Art therapy and expressive arts therapy are types of experiential therapy that utilize endless artistic ventures to benefit their clients.
Of course, art therapy may involve a person creating art with markers and paper, but it also involves numerous, forms of creation, such as:
- Dance and movement
- Playing and writing music
- Acting out scenes as part of drama therapy
- Creating puppets and masks
- Writing poetry, fiction, or true stories based on personal experience4
Not only does art therapy focus on the creation of art, but it can also include experiencing and appreciating art, like in the case of listening to music.
Art Therapy Is Psychotherapy
When people consider psychotherapy, they commonly imagine one client and one therapist speaking in a room. While art therapy commonly defies this convention, it is considered a psychotherapy by the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association. With this psychotherapy label, art therapy is in the same class as other effective, evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), and psychodynamic therapy.5
What Can Art Therapy Help With?
For decades, art therapists have been using the concepts and techniques linked to the approach to improve a wide range of mental and physical health issues for populations both young and old. As experts conduct more research over time, the number of conditions art therapy can treat successfully continues to grow.
Mental and Behavioral Health Disorders
With its beginnings in mental health, many psychological disorders may improve with art therapy, including:
- Depressive conditions like major depressive disorder
- Anxiety disorders including phobias
- Eating disorders
- Traumatic symptoms connected to post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance use disorders and addictions to alcohol and other legal and illicit drugs
- Psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder2,3,4,6,7
In addition to these recognized mental health disorders, art therapy is also helpful in the treatment of stress, tension, and self-injury. People who engage in art therapy commonly report improved levels of relaxation and well-being.4
Other Health-Related Issues
People may expect art therapy to create positive changes with mental health and psychological issues, but the impact of the psychotherapy style on physical health-related concerns is a pleasant surprise. Art therapy can improve the symptoms associated with physical well-being and medical conditions, such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease: Through the use of art, the therapist can improve memory, lessen agitation, and help maintain a focus on the here and now.
- Chronic illnesses: Chronic conditions that bring steady levels of pain and tension can benefit from the distraction and relaxation of art therapy.
- Head injuries: With those who have suffered head injuries, art therapy can aid communication, socialization, and expression of thoughts and feelings.
- Physical disabilities: Combined with other physical therapy techniques, art therapy can promote motivation and movement towards goals by making exercises more engaging.
- Developmental and intellectual disabilities: By encouraging cognitive abilities, motor skills, and daily living activities, art therapy helps those with these types of limitations succeed in life.7
Art therapy can also help reduce symptoms connected to other physical health symptoms. Blood pressure, heart rate, physical tension, and experiences of pain all improve with art therapy techniques.4
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Common Art Therapy Techniques
The techniques used during art therapy sessions are limited only by the creativity of the client and the therapist. Because art therapy is not restricted by the boundaries of other psychotherapies, nearly any creation of art or experience with art could be a helpful technique.
Some examples of common art techniques include:
Perhaps the most obvious example of an art therapy technique is for the client to create art by drawing, painting, sculpting, making collages, fashioning items from wood and metal, or using some other medium. The therapist may offer a specific prompt of what to create, or they could allow the client the freedom to explore as they wish. In either case, the therapist will attend to the client’s experience and process of creating, rather than focusing on the finished product.
In the context of art therapy, music engagement is more complex than merely pressing play and listening to music. Art therapists can create a dialogue to explore favorite types of music, or play various selections for the client to see what types of thoughts, memories, and feelings the music evokes. Clients may bang a drum or tap on piano keys to create sounds that match their feelings.
Movement-Based Artistic Expression
Whether the movement is dance, expressive movement, forms of exercise, or acting out a scene from a play, movements can effectively communicate and process feelings that may be too complicated to share verbally.
Poetry, memoirs, and works of fiction can improve health and wellness on many levels. Like with other forms of art therapy, the therapist may guide the process or only act as the facilitator for the client.4
Some art therapists will choose to combine various aspects of art therapy into a melting pot of creative expression.
Art Therapy Examples
With the numerous techniques and populations that may benefit from art therapy, it can be challenging to imagine how the treatment occurs in practice, so consider these examples of art therapy in action.
Visual Arts Therapy with Heart Disease
People with heart disease face numerous mental and medical influences of the condition and commonly feel sad, anxious, and pessimistic about their condition. The art therapist may work to explore these feelings by asking their client to “draw” their disease. By noticing the style of drawing, the colors used, and the person’s experience while drawing, the therapist can help to reduce and relieve these unwanted feelings.4
Visual Art Therapy with Depression and Self-Injury
If a client presents with depression and self-injurious behaviors, the art therapist may direct them to create a puppet. Using a therapeutic tool called sublimation, the puppet becomes a healthier way to release strong feelings, rather than the client resorting to self-harm.2
The puppet may help to represent the client or the struggles the client finds themselves trying to manage. The project can last for weeks or months of therapy as a way to approach difficult feelings and concerns in a non-threatening, indirect way. As the time in therapy continues, symptoms begin to resolve because art therapy brings them to light.
Movement-Based Art Therapy with Anxiety
People with anxiety tend to have worried thoughts and tense muscles. After assessing the symptoms and presenting problems, an expressive arts therapist who uses movement could engage the client in some form of dance that emphasizes freedom and relaxation. While the body becomes calm, the therapist will help the person shrink feelings of hesitation and judgment to promote increased self-acceptance.
The act of dance can simultaneously minimize the cognitive and physical effects of anxiety. With repetition, the symptoms diminish, and the individual can continue the practice of dance and movement whenever there is a symptom flare.
How to Find an Art Therapist
Art therapists are widely available in a multitude of settings and locations. Art therapists work in places like:
- Community agencies and private practices
- Psychiatric inpatient and substance abuse rehabilitation facilities
- Crisis centers
- Nursing homes and senior communities1
Art therapists are located across the country, and using the American Art Therapy Association Locator Tool can help the process of finding providers in a specific area. Someone seeking a music therapist can browse the American Music Therapy Association Online Directory.
Alternatively, a person can identify a reputable art therapist by:
- Speaking with friends and family members who have experience with art therapy
- Requesting a referral from a primary care physician
- Consulting with a mental health professional for a list of available providers
Not all therapists are equal, so people should only seek out trustworthy clinicians.
Who May Provide Art Therapy Sessions?
Any person seeking an art therapist must practice caution as there could be some practitioners who advertise or market themselves as art therapists without having acquired the training, experience, and education needed to carry that title. An art therapist will have a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, or a related field as well as specific training, supervision, and practice performing art therapy.1
Other mental health and physical health professionals may offer the use of art therapy techniques while not necessarily being a credentialed art therapist. Each person should make an informed choice about what treatment they want, and who it is that will provide the treatment.
Cost of Art Therapy and Does Insurance Typically Cover It?
The cost of art therapy could range anywhere from nearly free to over $100 per session. Many art therapists will accept insurance, while others will require only cash payment for their services. Be sure to get upfront pricing information and inquire about sliding scales based on income as needed.
Art therapy is a widely recognized and approved form of psychotherapy, which means that insurances will cover art sessions as they would other forms of treatment like CBT and psychodynamic therapy. A person hoping to use insurance to cover their art therapy appointments should always check with the company to ensure coverage. They should account for any out-of-pocket expenses like copays, deductibles, and coinsurance.
Key Questions to Ask an Art Therapist
Asking an art therapist questions at the outset of treatment can reaffirm the idea that this form of psychotherapy is an appropriate fit for the current symptoms and desired goals.
Consider asking an art therapist:
- Would art therapy be an effective way to improve my symptoms?
- Are you a licensed and credentialed art therapist?
- What are the benefits of art therapy?
- Will you mix other forms of psychotherapy into these sessions?
- What will a typical art therapy session look like?
- How long is the course of treatment?
- What steps do you take to protect my privacy and confidentiality?8
Reputable therapists will be happy to offer frank answers to these questions and more.
What to Expect At Your First Appointment
Initial art therapy appointments will differ between providers, with some opting to explore the impact of art immediately and others using that first session to gather information about a client’s chief complaint and formulate a treatment plan.
Generally, the first art therapy session involves meeting one another and working to establish a positive working relationship. By building trust and rapport through a shared vision, the client can feel comfortable moving forward.
The therapist will likely show each client the space and materials used to create or experience art. They may encourage a short and direct art therapy technique to offer an example of what to expect in future sessions.
Is Art Therapy Effective?
One undisputed truth is that art therapy is a very effective psychotherapy option for many medical and mental health issues. Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association endorse art therapy as a sound treatment for numerous conditions.
Art therapy is an often-studied form of psychotherapy, and the findings are generally encouraging. One analysis of other studies found:
- Music engagement helps with relaxation, anxiety, heart rates, and feelings of well-being
- Visual arts improves depression, grief and loss issues, stress levels, anxiety, social interactions, and self-worth while distracting from life problems
- Movement-based expression can aid physical symptoms, body image, mood improvement, and grief and loss
- Expressive writing studies show the act can improve anger levels, mood, perception of pain, fatigue, relationship problems, sleep, and overall feelings of well-being4
As if these findings were not impressive enough, studies also show that art therapy is helpful with many different populations including:
- People with cancer
- Those with medical issues like obesity, HIV/AIDS, and heart failure
- People who have various mental health issues like schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and trauma
- Incarcerated people
- Elderly adults
- People with high levels of stress and burnout from their careers including nurses and caretakers6
Risks of Art Therapy
Like any mental health treatment, art therapy carries some risks, but with a trusted clinician, the risk is reduced (though not eliminated). The inherent risk comes when vulnerable people or people with powerful symptoms begin expressing their state. Doing this may cause feelings to intensify as they are uncovered. The goal of treatment is to bring these feelings to the surface and then lessen their impact.9
Criticisms of Art Therapy
The most common criticisms of art therapy likely come from people without firsthand experience of the treatment. They may believe that “fingerpainting” cannot possibly help address something as serious as physical and psychological health issues. Of course, a multitude of studies and research proves these people wrong.
How Is Art Therapy Different from Other Therapy Techniques?
When setting out to find effective treatment for a mental or medical problem, comparing and contrasting available treatments is essential. Some treatments frequently compared to art therapy are:
Art Therapy vs. CBT
CBT is a form of talk therapy that aims to identify and modify a person’s irrational thinking styles in hopes of changing their feelings. Though art therapy and CBT are quite different, CBT therapists may employ art therapy techniques in sessions to help understand problematic thoughts and encourage healthy behaviors.5
Art Therapy vs. Psychoanalytic / Psychodynamic Therapies
Psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapies focus on the influence of childhood experiences and their impact on the present. These therapies work to bring the unconscious thoughts that are fueling motivation into conscious awareness to create change. Psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapies may seem to have little overlap with art therapy, but in reality, all of these therapies value the content of the unconscious mind and believe bringing them to light will improve symptoms.5
Art Therapy vs. Expressive Arts Therapy
As previously stated, the terms “art therapy” and “expressive arts therapy” may be synonymous to some and very different to others. In some settings, art therapy may be reserved for visual arts therapy where a client creates art, and expressive arts therapy will include all forms of art therapy, including music, dance, expressive writing, and others. Commonly, these terms are used interchangeably.
The History of Art Therapy
Since humans were scrawling on cave walls, people noted the therapeutic effects of artistic expression, but formalized art therapy is more of a recent development. Pioneers in both the U.S. and Europe laid the foundation of art therapy during the 1940s.
Adrian Hill, an Englishman, was the first person to use the term “art therapy” when he noticed the healing influence of art on his own body and mind during tuberculosis treatment. Edward Adamson, also in England, added to Hill’s work by providing art therapy to people institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals with the goal of allowing free expression of thoughts and feelings without the intervention of a therapist.
In the U.S. during the 1940s, Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer were driving forces of art therapy. Naumburg had a particular influence with her belief that art therapy could uncover the unconscious mind, which resulted in symbolism worthy of analysis from the therapist.10
Art therapy continues to change and adapt to the current trends in holistic health treatments. With increasing interest in the mind-body connection, art therapy will continue to evolve to meet the needs of many.
For Further Reading
Please review these sites for more information specific to art therapy and additional forms of expressive arts therapies: