What is Art Therapy and How Can it Help if I Have Depression or Anxiety Symptoms?

The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as “a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.”

It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.

Art therapy can be used to treat psychological distress, such as anxiety or trauma.  In many cases, it might be used in conjunction with other psychotherapy techniques such as group therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Some situations in which art therapy might be utilized include:

  • Children with learning disabilities
  • Adults experiencing severe stress
  • Children suffering from behavioral or social problems at school or at home
  • People experiencing health problems or challenges
  • Children or adults who have experienced a traumatic event

An art therapist may use a variety of art methods including drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage with clients ranging from young children to the elderly. Clients who have experienced emotional trauma, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues can benefit from expressing themselves creatively.

You might also wonder how an art therapy session differs from the average art class. While art therapy may involve learning skills or art techniques, the emphasis is generally first on developing and expressing images that come from inside the person.  Art Therapy is about the process, not the product.

One Art Therapy Example

In a study conducted on a college campus with 84 student volunteers, researchers measured the effects on anxiety (pre-exam week) with exercises that introduced “free-form” coloring; complex circular mandalas, and templates for plaid designs.

The results of the study clearly supported the hypothesis that coloring either the mandala or the plaid design for 20 minutes was even more effective at reducing anxiety levels than the free form drawing sessions. 

Why did this happen?   Like the mandala, the plaid design was complex enough that it required a certain amount of attention to complete, but was not so complex that it required excessive thought or focus.  Both designs provided structure!  If anxiety is a type of “inner chaos” then using the mandala and plaid designs provided a way for participants to “organize” their feelings.

By providing a safe environment and an array of art materials, our clients can benefit from a creative process that enhances their counseling experience and becomes a way for them to develop methods for self-help and self-assurance. 

Written by: Lura Lee Smedstad, Licensed Professional Counselor



Twin Cities Therapy and Counseling Associates is a mental health clinic with counseling services by caring therapists.