Expressive Arts Therapy: How Art Can Improve Mental Health

4 min
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Pablo Picasso once said that art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. Everyone has their own “dust”. Yours could be the unpleasant news you read on the internet, or a micromanager who never leaves you alone. Perhaps yours comes from within – that tiny little voice that doubts your worth, or exhibits your lack of self-confidence. No matter what you’re struggling with that’s weighing you down, Picasso's metaphor suggests that art can serve as a therapeutic tool, helping you to feel better when you’re going through difficult times – that’s the healing power of art. 

Expressive arts therapy is a modality that uses art to treat mental health issues. It involves various art forms, from drawing, sculpting, and music; to dance, drama, and writing. Originating over 50 years ago, expressive arts therapy has since been described one of the most well-established creative psychotherapies. Psychotherapists have discovered that it can be used for more than helping to heal mental and emotional issues – it can also help those who aren’t struggling but are simply hoping to maintain or improve their health and well-being, using it to help them thrive. Read on and learn about how expressive arts therapy can help wash away your “dust” in life.

1. Art Can Soothe Your Mind

Have you ever come across videos titled "The Most Satisfying Video" on social media platforms? While their relaxing effects vary among different people, the content in these videos often involve art. Perhaps it captures the moment when the paint disperses itself into the water, or maybe it's a time-lapse of doodling. Sometimes, just watching artists create simple and repetitive patterns can also help relieve stress and anxiety. That's because art is naturally addictive. 

Art eases worries. Creating – or even watching others making – art can help soothe your brain and relieve stress. In fact, research suggests that drawing for 20 minutes can not only help reduce negative emotions but also relieve academic pressure. Other studies show that making art based around mandalas three days a week can help regulate trauma symptoms, including intrusive thoughts and avoidant behavior. Coloring alone – without drawing – has also been found to help manage anxiety. For this reason, some therapists use coloring books to help hyperactive children behave, as coloring can help them improve their focus and concentration skills.

2. Art Can Boost Your Self-Confidence

Expressive arts involve different skill sets. For example, dancing requires motor skills to perform movements. Drama and roleplay employ memory skills to memorize the script. Painting and doodling require not only the ability to imagine, but also the skill to arrange the colors, objects, and graphics in a way that is appealing to the eyes. So, as people use these skills when they engage in artistic or creative activities, these activities can benefit their mental health in various ways, from enhancing their feelings of self-worth to increasing their sense of accomplishment. When people finish a piece of art, they can feel more confident about themselves, which is essential for better mental and emotional health

Through the art-making process, people can also gain a sense of mastery and self-efficacy. This is because through the creative journey, they may start to recognize that they have the ability to achieve their goals – be it to finish a painting, give a dance performance, or play a piece of music, for instance. Due to the confidence-boosting power of arts, many mental health professionals have started to apply expressive arts therapy in healthcare settings. For example, some nurses use art to help children living in hospitals to enhance their self-confidence; some psychotherapists use art to help adults with depression and borderline personality disorder improve their sense of self-worth.

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3. Art Can Be Non-Verbal

Traumatized people often struggle to talk about their past. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk – a psychiatrist specializing in trauma – suggested in his book, The Body Keeps the Score, that trauma can affect certain brain regions that process language: the Broca’s and the Wernicke’s areas. Since most traditional therapies (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy) involve talking, these therapies, along with their heavy use of words, can trigger or remind traumatized people about their experience. This can, unfortunately, make them feel overwhelmed and stressed instead of healing with the therapy. 

Expressive arts therapy offers a way for these people, as well as those with other mental health issues, to better communicate their thoughts and feelings. For instance, happiness can be expressed through flashy, glowing, and vibrant colors, while sadness can be displayed through muddy, ashy, and somber colors. Just as the arts can allow people with mental health challenges to express their struggles in a nonverbal way, finding a means of expression through creative pursuits can also help them avoid unnecessary feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment that they might otherwise encounter when trying to speak their thoughts instead.

4. Art Can Awaken Your Five Senses

Expressive arts are multisensorial – they involve images, sounds, and tactile movements. When we paint, we use our hands to hold the brush, dipping it into the paint to pick the color we want, and noticing the texture of the canvas. Pottery is similar. When we wedge the clay, we can feel its stickiness or slipperiness on our skin. When we make a vase, we apply pressure with our hands, and with all of these pursuits, we may smell certain scents, or hear specific sounds while we create. Sight isn’t the only sense we use to create art. 

Engaging your five senses can, in fact, improve your well-being. This is because when we stimulate our senses, we can live more mindfully and be fully aware of the present moment. If you often find yourself spending too much time ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, art can help to bring you back to the present, and help you appreciate the here and now.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: History of Expressive Arts Therapy; Effect of Art Production on Negative Mood: A Randomized, Controlled Trial; Soul Circles: Mandalas and Meaning; Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety? A Replication Study; Bessel van der Kolk MD; The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma; Expressive Arts Therapy with Hospitalized Children: A Pilot Study of Co-Creating Healing Sock Creatures©; Art Therapy in Mental Health: A Systematic Review of Approaches and Practices.

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