What is Art Therapy and How Does it Work?

What is art therapy and how it works

What is art therapy and how it works

What is Art Therapy and How Does it Work?

Hello friends, today I'll share with you on what is art therapy and explain how it works.

So here I’ll go over what art therapy is and explain how art therapy works, including how it can be a supportive healing tool to process thoughts, emotions, and benefit our mind, body, and soul. I include findings from research on how art therapy reduces our stress and improve our well-being.

There is also a video about this topic, so feel free to go here and watch it as well. 


What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy, in its simplest definition, is expressing yourself through art, through a creative process for our physical, mental, emotional well-being.

If you want a formal definition of it, it is:

Art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives through art-making and applied psychology within a psychotherapeutic relationship.

(from Arttherapy.org)

(If you want a more in-depth explanation of the different kinds of art therapy, you can listen to my podcast episode 19.)

In art therapy - there are 3 things that are present: artist, artwork, art therapist. This can help you differentiate between what is art therapy and what is not art therapy. If a session doesn't have one of these, it's most likely not art therapy.

Art therapy can happen in many forms: in groups, with couples, with family, with individual, with a whole community.

The art therapist provides purposefully chosen & curated art materials, supporting you and helping you work towards a therapeutic goal. In art therapy, the materials each have a specific therapeutic and psychological effect, so they are chosen based on whether it meets the goal or not.

What questions do you have about art therapy? Let me know in the comments below.

How Art Therapy works

 Art therapy works on so many different levels, but here I will share how it affects and how it works on our mind, body, and soul.


Art Therapy is Multi-Sensory

Art therapy involves our senses. Our sight, our sense of touch, hearing, and even smell. Art therapy adds another element to just verbal therapy because the art-making process involves interaction with materials, tools, and physical activity. The body is involved in creating and that is powerful. That is why it can feel very calming and we become more in tune with the present moment (and we are able to release the past & the future; this is important because anxiety or depression comes from dwelling too much in the past or the future).

Also, in art-making involves our kinesthetic abilities. It involves movement. Research has shown that the movement that we make, in addition to feeling with our senses during the art process, help regulate our breathe, our heart beat, and our muscles. That's why our body feels more calm and centered during art-making.


Art therapy affects our brain/neuropsychology

In art therapy, we can communicate nonverbally through images or visual means. Communicating our thoughts or feelings can be easier to do with images rather than with words. For many of us, it can feel safer to use images than words. Plus, most of our memories are stored in images, so art therapy helps us access those memories, which may be affecting how we feel and act in the present moment.

Art therapy helps with bilateral integration

When you do art therapy, you are activating both sides of the brain, integrating both left and right hemispheres. This helps with having more balance in our mental state and our experiences, and reduce stress. During art therapy, we can access the subconscious memories and experiences stored in the right brain and consciously explore them, which makes art therapy a whole-brain healing method.

Art therapy can be both a bottom-up and top-down healing method

Art therapy combines the process of both healing through bodily experience and through thinking. In the psychology world, bottom-up healing involves addressing the stress that is stored in the body first in order to affect how we think or feel. With top-down healing, we address how we think, or our minds, in order to reduce or change our bodily stress.

To give you an example, talk therapy, which is mind-based can be a top-down method while float therapy, yoga, exercise or breathing exercises, can be called bottom-up because it addresses body-based stress first. And the awesome thing about art therapy is that it is both at the same time, because it involves our thinking mind (e.g., applying logic, critical thinking, sequential thinking, planning etc) as well as our body (since it involves sensory and kinesthetic experience).

Art therapy accesses the roots of our situation or feelings

So, there is research that about 95% of our actions are based on our subconscious. Because our subconscious speaks more readily in a visual language, art therapy can help us tap into our emotions underneath our consciousness and give us a way to express them.


Art therapy is spiritual

Art therapy is a spiritual practice as well because it helps us connect with our soul and our higher being, allowing us to become more self-aware and connect to what is intangible and to what is bigger than us.

When we make art, we access the part of us that knows more than our conscious mind does. We all have innate higher knowledge and wisdom, and art helps us to tap into that knowledge.

Art therapy helps us to find meaning

Also, art therapy helps us make meaning out of our life and the feelings and thoughts we have. It empowers us to see pain, transform it, and create our own meaning from it. It gives us a sense of direction, and purpose in life.

When we work with images, we are often working with metaphors. We are working with stories that come from our life experiences. We project our life into the artwork. But the beautiful thing is that because we can see our life with some "distance" (literally, we have distance between ourselves and the artwork), we can see the bigger picture. We can find meanings that we couldn't otherwise. And the art therapist is there to help us find order in the seeming chaos we see in the art.

Although I tried to go over what art therapy is and how it works in a way that is concise but still has the essence of what it is, I may have left out a lot of things that would explain it in detail. That's why I want to suggest, if you are interested in learning about art therapy, definitely read up on it and also listen to my podcast.

Some reading materials you can look into: 

Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience

Handbook of Art Therapy

Art Heals

If you are actually interested in getting into the art therapy field as a career, read up on this post and you can get my free How to Become an Art Therapist Checklist PDF:

Checklist PDF mockup.png

Download here.

Thank you for reading & talk to you next time!

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