What Is Art Therapy (and Should You Try It)?

Hint: It’s not just a pleasant afternoon with a coloring book.

Loading the player...

Coloring books have long been considered something for kids, but the past decade changed that. Barnes & Noble sold 14 million adult coloring books made in 2016, with pages filled with intricate mandalas, patterns, animals, and flowers. Many of the books market themselves as “stress-relieving,” “relaxing,” “motivational,” and even “art therapy.”

But licensed art therapists want to get one thing straight: Although therapeutic in its own right, a coloring book does *not* meet the criteria for art therapy. Art has long been used as an outlet for people with stress, depression, or anxiety, but art therapy is a formal program that takes it a step further.

What Art Therapy Looks Like

In an art therapy class, a licensed professional facilitates the program. A certified art therapist is someone who has met the educational requirements set by the American Art Therapy Association. The art therapist has two primary goals: teaching artistic skills and guiding you through self-reflection.

Through the artistic process, the art therapist can help you through a number of things, according to the American Art Therapy Association:

  • Exploring your thoughts, feelings, and inner conflicts

  • Recognizing and managing emotions

  • Increasing self-awareness

  • Boosting self-esteem and mental health

  • Relieving stress and anxiety

  • Improving cognitive and sensorimotor functions

  • And managing addictions or other negative coping methods.

While you might accomplish these tasks to some extent through creating art on your own, it likely won’t be quite as powerful as what you can learn about yourself through the guidance of a trained art therapist.

Who Benefits from Art Therapy?

Anyone could likely find value in art therapy, but research has found it can be an especially valuable resource for certain populations, such as those with developmental, medical, or psychological impairments.

Art therapy may be useful in helping people recover from trauma, something that has historically been difficult to treat. A 2018 study from the Netherlands found that participants with post-traumatic stress disorder experienced less intrusive thoughts, more confidence in the future, and improved relaxation after art therapy.

Another population who has found art therapy valuable is among people with chronic illnesses, such as cancer. In research on interventions for people undergoing treatment for cancer, art therapy has been shown to decrease depression and anxiety, improve quality of life, and help cope with the disease. This may be especially valuable in pediatric hospitals.

Art therapy has also been helpful to improve cognition, such as for people with dementia, traumatic brain injuries, or developmental disorders. For example, art therapy has been shown to help improve communication and reduce behavioral challenges among children with autism spectrum disorders.

And finally, art therapy (like many other forms of therapy) may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Art therapy can help dig in to certain values, emotions, or memories that may be fueling anxiety and help find new ways to manage thoughts. Learn more about treating anxiety disorders here.

To find your nearest art therapist, you can check the American Art Therapy Association’s Art Therapist Locator.