Does Art Therapy Work for Anxiety? Creativity and Comprehensive Treatment Programs

Art therapy has been shown to significantly help individuals who struggle with anxiety. Understanding art therapy and the research surrounding the field shows that this supplemental treatment option has been helpful with people of all ages and backgrounds. Art therapy works to heal anxiety through helping us feel a sense of calm, express ourselves, and become more self-aware. As part of a comprehensive treatment plan, art therapy may be a truly transformative treatment option for those who seek healing from anxiety disorders.

Unbelievably rich watercolor swirls from your brush as you dip the bristles into clean, clear water. As you watch, you feel your racing heartbeat begin to slow and the raw edges of your panic begin to smooth themselves out. Acrylic paint gets under your fingernails and in the crevices of your palms as you mark the paper with childlike abandon. You take a deep breath, feeling truly safe for the first time in days. You revel in the comforting scratch of colored pencil on smooth drawing paper, and exhale gently as you watch the mandala come alive in vibrant hues. After feeling trapped for so long in the tight grip of anxiety, these moments feel so good. In your art therapy sessions, you discover a newfound sense of enjoyment, creativity, and calm.

Does art therapy work for anxiety? For many, the answer is yes. After over 70 years in practice, art therapy has been found by mental health professionals to be helpful in reducing symptoms of anxiety. From graduate students to cancer patients and from children to the elderly, individuals have seen significant and measurable improvements in their anxiety levels after participating in creative activities. However, it is not a substitute for psychotherapy or pharmacotherapies, and tends to work best in conjunction with other treatment methods—which is why clinicians often recommend art therapy as part of a larger comprehensive plan.

Understanding Art Therapy

While all creative expression is beneficial to us in one way or another, art therapy goes deeper than many people realize. It’s more than spending a contemplative hour with an adult coloring book. This is a studied, proven, and professionally-practiced treatment option that is currently helping thousands of people in schools, hospitals, military bases, and therapy settings around the globe. Performing artistic and creative activities in the presence of a compassionate and experienced therapist can help each of us process our emotions better, learn more about ourselves, and gain a sense of calm.

Art therapy has been found to help people of all ages, races, and backgrounds heal from and handle difficult experiences and emotions like fear and worry. It’s been actively requested by parents and children who suffer from leukemia, to help them stay strong and positive through difficult hospital procedures. It’s helped aging adults reduce anxiety levels by as much as 70.6%. Art therapy has also been proven to help those who struggle with trauma and those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness cope with the reality of their situations.

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How Art Therapy Works to Heal Anxiety

Art therapy has potential benefits for us all. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy exercises help “foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, [and] reduce and resolve conflicts and distress.” However, this particular treatment has also been studied and proven to specifically help those who deal with anxiety disorders. Especially when used in combination with other treatment methods, research shows that art therapy:

  • Calms the nervous system.
    • Art therapy activities are meditative, quiet, and calming, which helps soothe symptoms of stress, nervousness, and irritability. A calm mind is better able to process difficult emotions and experiences. Mental health professionals have found that art therapy is helpful for resolving deep inner conflicts through meaningful moments of calm. Over time, these experiences help individuals to feel more peaceful in general throughout their daily lives.
  • Encourages self-expression.
    • Many of us struggle with anxiety surrounding thoughts, feelings, or events that we cannot or don’t want to speak about out loud. Art therapy helps us express ourselves in a safe manner. Through thoughtful exercises and with the guidance of a compassionate and experienced therapist, individuals with anxiety can learn how to express how they’re feeling in a creative, constructive manner. Creative self-expression helps each of us connect with experiences and emotions in a healthy, rewarding way.
  • Increases self-awareness.
    • When we engage in creative pursuits, we often discover new aspects of ourselves that we weren’t aware of before. This phenomenon is especially clear when experienced in the context of an art therapy session. Through meditative, expressive, and idiosyncratic exercises (such as drawing with the non-dominant hand), individuals gain an increased sense of self-awareness. It’s much easier to understand and identify with feelings and experiences that exist below the surface of our conscious minds when we focus on a creative activity.

Including Art Therapy in Your Treatment Plan

If the anxiety you or your loved ones experience becomes too severe to comfortably handle on your own, know that help in the form of various anxiety treatment options is just a phone call away. Art therapy is one fantastic supplemental option that may even provide benefits above and beyond those that experts are currently aware of. As part of a long-term, comprehensive treatment plan at a residential facility, art therapy can help you work through your fear and anxiety as well as whatever other feelings and emotions you may experience during the course of your treatment.

While a paint pallet and a blank canvas cannot cure your anxiety, the skills and habits you learn through art therapy are important tools that can help you create a new life for yourself—one in which you’ll finally feel empowered to color outside the lines your anxiety has drawn for you.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.