What Is Art Therapy And How Can It Help?

Updated March 17, 2020

Reviewer Elizabeth Strong

Everyone goes through hard times through their lives and can choose to handle it in whatever way resonates with them. One of the most common, and arguably most effective, ways to get through hard times in life is with therapy. There are many different types of therapy that one can choose from, including cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or family and couples therapy. Though lesser known, art therapy can also be extremely beneficial for both individuals and couples.

What Is Art Therapy?

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Art therapy is the method of utilizing one's creativity to bring about positive change in their mental or emotional state. In simpler terms, art therapy is creating art with the goal for it to make the creator feel better or help them through difficult times. Sometimes, the art aspect is combined with traditional talk therapy.

A counselor will lead an individual or group through an art activity while also providing talk therapy. The two work in tandem to help participants uncover emotions that would not have been accessible through one of the forms therapy alone. The visual art aspect helps bring up discussion points that would have remained concealed if only talking were involved.

Creative expression is a useful tool for many people to resolve internal issues they are having. Many people will find that immersing themselves in a project such as painting on canvas will leave them feeling relaxed and clear-headed.

Art therapy is also an extremely useful coping method. It is a healthy way for people to release their feelings and occupy their time and minds, rather than turning to other, unhealthy coping methods such as drugs or alcohol. It can also be a great tool for people living with depression or other conditions because creating art and having a physical product to show for your time gives a sense of accomplishment that some people may be lacking.

Art Therapy Techniques

Art therapy is as diverse as art itself. Art therapy can take many forms, including visual arts such as painting, drawing, or sculpting. However, it is not limited to visual art. Creative outlets like poetry and music can also be used as art therapy. Art can mean different things to different people. When it comes to art therapy, any creative outlet that makes the person feel better can be considered a form of therapy.

Different types of art therapy will resonate with different people, and it comes down to personal choice. But, there are a few mediums that resonate with most people, such as:


Using clay to create a product with one's own hands is a gratifying experience. When used for therapeutic purposes, the therapist may instruct a patient to create a sculpture of a specific person or thing. A lot of emotion can come out as a result of the sculpting, showing the way that one view themselves or other people in their lives. Sculpture gives people the chance to physically build and mold representations of people and things in their lives that evoke certain emotions, whether that be positive or negative.

Collage: Not everyone has the natural ability to create drawings or paintings that make them feel good about the product, and that is okay. However, there is one medium in which almost anyone can excel- collage. Collaging is the mixing of multimedia materials, such as magazine and newspaper cutouts, textiles, and whatever else someone feels inspired to add to the mix.

A collage is a personal piece of work that represents one's inner feelings and interests. And, it does not take much natural ability to cut things and glue them together. Still, it takes time and can be very indicative of one's inner feelings and thoughts that they may not feel comfortable vocalizing in talk therapy. Collaging is a great activity that is inclusive of people of all art skill levels.

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Phototherapy: Photos are a great way to document one's life. They provide a visual record of one's daily activities, and for the viewer, provide a glimpse into one's inner thoughts and emotions. Therapeutically, photography is great because it provides a chance for the patient to learn a new, useful skill, while also participating in a creative activity that provides a physical product afterward.

From a therapists' perspective, seeing what someone chooses to photograph can be very telling. Plus, discussing the photos one chose to take is a great way to start a dialogue about why they chose to photograph the specific thing, and the thoughts and emotions behind that choice.

Mosaics: Mosaics are a design put together from broken pieces of material, usually tile. The process of actually making the mosaic is extremely time consuming and laborious. But, the amount of focus required can be therapeutic for many people, as the artist must fully dive into their work. The final product of mosaics is a message in itself- it is the creation of something beautiful from broken pieces. This makes mosaic making especially fitting for art therapy.

Who Is An Art Therapist?

While anyone can reap the mental benefits of artistry on their own, not everyone can work as an art therapist. At the very least, anyone employed as an art therapist needs to obtain a master's degree in art therapy. In the United States alone, there are over 30 art therapy degree programs, though the degree titles vary.

Some are degrees in art education or art counseling. Regardless of the title, these degrees share the same foundational requirements. The degree program requirements include a variety of fundamentals necessary for the field, including psychology, psychodiagnostics, therapy, and studio arts (painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.) training. Additionally, art therapy students will need to complete a practicum, or field work, before receiving their degree.

In addition to a degree, some institutions require art therapists also to be board certified. In the United States, this falls to the American Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB). The ATCB administers examinations to art therapists who have already completed their advanced degree to ensure they possess the skills necessary to be successful, helpful art therapists. As you can see, becoming an art therapist is not an easy road. Therapists working in these positions have years of training and experience to facilitate art therapy sessions to patients.

Who Can Benefit From Art Therapy?

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The short answer to this question is that anyone can benefit from art therapy. The process of creating art can give people an inside look into their thoughts, and expose things that they otherwise would have pushed away. Even if you do not suffer from any mental health issues, art is a great way to relieve the normal stresses of daily life. But, there are a few conditions or situations that are specifically helped by art therapy:

Depression: Talking about depression is hard, partially because when you are depressed, you may not want to talk to anyone. Visual art can be a great emotional outlet for people suffering from depression who do not want to discuss their feelings in traditional talk therapy. Putting their feelings into visual form can bring a sense of contentment, and is a conversation starter for therapy. Having a visual aid to base a conversation off of can shift the focus of therapy to the art rather than explicitly discussing feelings.

Anxiety: Anxiety can be an all-consuming condition. Creating art is a wonderful opportunity to take the mind away from whatever is causing the anxiety and fully focus on the art. This can distract the mind enough to soothe feelings of anxiety, even if only temporarily. Plus, whatever is causing the anxiety is likely to influence the art, so the person can discuss their anxieties through showing the visualization.

Addiction Recovery: Many people recovering from addiction to drugs or alcohol tend to need to find a hobby to occupy the time that they otherwise would have spent using. Art therapy programs can be doubly useful for people in this situation because it can occupy their time while also providing therapeutic benefits.

Couples Counseling: Relationships take work. But, sometimes it can be hard to voice your feelings to your partner or communicate what you are trying to say. Art therapy as a couple can be extremely beneficial to help partners better understand one another. It is also a wonderful way to boost communication and productively spend time together. If you are interested in general relationship counseling, talk to an online therapist on Regain. They can help you work through your problems, and help you determine if you would like to try art therapy.

Trying Art Therapy

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If you are interested in art therapy, check out this art therapist locator from the American Art Therapy Association. Art therapy is rising in popularity around the world, but still, it may be difficult to find a provider that fits your needs. If this is the case, you can try a solo exercise in art therapy. Choose your preferred medium, and fully commit to the project for at least 30 minutes.

Afterward, write in a journal about how the exercise made you feel. Though this is not the same as working with a certified art therapist, it can still bring about positive changes to your mindset.

Art therapy can benefit almost anyone, and its rising popularity is proof of that. Still, it is not guaranteed to be everyone's preferred method of therapy. If you are interested in working with a therapist, but not art therapy, check out Regain to connect with an online counselor. Regardless of what challenges you are facing as an individual or in a relationship, there is nothing to lose by talking it out with a counselor.

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