What is art therapy and how can you use it to improve your mental health and well-being?

What is art therapy

To put simply, art therapy is a way for someone to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions in a creative and constructive way, this is useful when people struggle to verbalize their mental state. Art therapy usually consists of three things, the artist, the art and an art therapist, the therapist will work with the client (artist) to help them understand what their pictures might mean.
Man doing art therapy

Art therapy for mental illnesses

There is an array of mental illnesses out there and they often get progressively worse if not managed. Art therapy is a great way to help someone who is suffering with mental issues for example, someone with PTSD may have repressed memories of a traumatic experience and memories are often stored in the form of images, making it easier to be expressed through art. Art therapy allows you to tap into your subconscious mind and have a better understanding of oneself. Art therapy is be used for many mental illnesses as a way of relieving tension but, it can also be used for non-clinical condition such as low mood. Below we have listed some of the uses of art therapy.

Art therapy can be used for:

  • Treating depression
  • Helping people deal with long term illnesses
  • Treating anxiety
  • Communication tool for someone with schizophrenia
  • Unveiling repressed memories
  • Managing anger issues
Girl with mental health issues who can't workout her feelings

Types of art therapy

Art therapies can be very effective when compared to talking therapies as more senses can be used, you can feel, see, touch and even hear the materials and tools in which you choose to use. Your mind and body connect to create the artwork that you are thinking of. Art therapy can be done in groups, individually, partners and families. When engaging in art therapies both sides of the brain are used, you can access your more creative side in the art and then your more critical mind when exploring what it means. Below are some different types of art therapy and ways of engaging in them.

  • Origami of what is important to you
  • Using clay to sculpt a model of something you dislike (clay is like a stress ball)
  • Painting a picture with water colors of your emotions
  • Finger painting what you see in your head
  • Crossing out words in a book and leaving the ones that explain how you feel
  • Painting a rainbow with the colors that express your emotions
  • Drawing a scribble and then making a picture out of it
  • Painting “emotion monsters”
  • Paper mache of your face and then one of what think about
  • Collage your problems
  • Draw a self portrait of when you are sad
  • Paint a landscape
  • Make a story out of sand
  • Nail pins into a board and then make a picture by wrapping string around them

Benefits of art therapy

There are many benefits of art therapy, for both the mind and the body which we will go through now.
  • Outlet for feelings
  • Positive coping skills
  • Reduces symptoms of pain
  • Anxiety relief
  • Stress management and relaxation
  • Self awareness and discovery
  • Improved cognition
  • Builds self esteem
  • Better communication with others
  • Creating a flow state
Left and right hemisphere of the breain, critical mind and creative mind

Art therapy activity

Art therapy worksheet

Before we start, I would like to make it clear that I am not an art therapist, psychiatrist or an expert in any facet of psychology, however I do have a love for art and actively study psychology. The activities in this journal are based off real therapies by the professionals and can be done on your own, if you would like a more in-depth analysis, I advise that you speak to a certified art therapist.

Before you start creating

What you need

You will need some art supplies. For this worksheet we advise that you either use paint, oil pastels or colored pencils, it’s up to you. You also need to print of the journal that should have been sent to your email, if you can’t see it, refresh your page and if it’s still not there, look in your junk mail and get us out of there!

Your environment

Try and go somewhere quiet where you’re not going to be distracted, get comfortable in a room where you can be alone with your thoughts and feelings. If you don’t deal well with complete silence and it makes you start to feel a bit anxious, you can put some lofi beats on in the background.

Be mindful

Before you start painting, you also need to put yourself in a reflective state of mind, you need to get in touch with your emotions. One way that you can enter a deeper state of consciousness is through using a mindfulness meditation. Sit down and start breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, once you’ve done this for a few minutes, you can then begin your task.

The thought bubble

To start this exercise, close your eyes and get in touch with how you feel, think about how you feel in the present moment, what emotions are you experiencing?
ask yourself, if this feeling had a color or a multitude of colors what would they be? What shape, temperature, weight, and even texture does this feeling have.
Now, put this onto the paper inside your bubble, don’t over think it. If you don’t know where to start, just put your brush or pencil on the paper and see where your hand takes you. It’s important to understand that you aren’t judging your art, instead, you’re trying to explore what your art is trying to tell you so, don’t worry about how good it looks.

Here’s my thought bubble

How to analyze your thought bubble

To analyze this piece of art, you are going to answer the prompts, by writing them into your reflection journal, which are both provided in the worksheet. We’ll go through them with you now, using my artwork as an example.
Prompt 1: What do you see in the image you created? Describe how it looks, is there any shapes or hidden pictures? Does it look like anything in particular?
My thought bubble has a yellow wave shape in it, which could represent the strong motivation and energy I have for my business.
Prompt 2: What do you think the image is trying to tell you? If the image could speak to you, what would it say? Are there any insights into your life that you could gain from this?
As I said already, in my image there is a huge wave that represents my energy, however, there seems to be some obstacles holding it from it’s full potential which could be the blockages that I keep facing in my work and life.
Prompt 3: Describe the art, from the arts point of view. What is going on in the picture? You can start of by writing “I am a piece of art and i.”
For my artwork, I could write, “I am a painting and I have lots of energy and power in my waves but, I need to learn how to channel this into breaking down the obstacles in my way.

The happy anatomy

This one’s quite simple, before you start painting, write down the things in your life that make you feel happy and / or supported into a list (you can use the lines next to the body.) you could write success, family or friends, anything that is important and has an impact on your life.
Now assign a color to yourself and some other colors to represent the things on your list.
After you’ve set up, put a circle in the center with the color you chose as “your color”, then paint the body with the colors that you choose to represent the things in your life. Color in wherever it resonates with you, you can fill it up, paint circles and even go outside the lines if it feels right!
Here’s mine

How to analyze your piece of art

To analyze this piece of art, you are going to answer the prompts, by writing them into your reflection journal, which are both provided in the worksheet. We’ll go through them with you now, using my artwork as an example.
Prompt 1: What is the most important thing on your list? Think about what has had the most impact on your life and if it wasn’t there what would life be like.
Mine is probably relationships with family, friends and you guys, as I feel like I wouldn’t be where I am today without these people.
Prompt 2: Where did you paint the most important thing on your list? Often, we put the most important things towards the center of our pictures.
I drew a line at the waist of my body, which could mean that I see my relationships as a foundation for all the other things on my list.
Prompt 3: Does the placement represent anything in your life? Sometimes you may paint the things on your list, in a place where it makes sense for example, when you were upset as a child, did your parents pat you on the head? If so, you may of painted your family color in the head area.
I didn’t notice anything about the placement of where I painted but, if you can see anything, let me know.
Prompt 4: What colors did you use? The colors you use in your art work, can often represent your feelings behind them.
Mine are quite common, red for relationships e.g. love and green for success e.g. money.

Let go page

With many adult coloring books and exercises your limited to what you can do, you have to stay in the lines, use certain colors and follow the rules but with the let go page, you can express your feelings and create whatever you want, it doesn’t have to be orderly, let your pencil or brush do the talking and have some fun, because that’s what art is all about.
You could draw lines, faces, patterns, flowers landscape or even yourself if you choose to.
Here’s what I created

How to analyze this piece of work

To analyze this piece of art, you are going to answer the prompts, by writing them into your reflection journal, which are both provided in the worksheet. We’ll go through them with you now, using my artwork as an example. There is more analyzing you can do in this piece, as you have had more creative control over it.
Prompt 1: What would you name this piece of art? Give it meaning by giving it a name. 
I would name my art work let go!
Prompt 2: What feeling words could you use to describe your work? If you had one word to describe it what would it be, sadness, happiness, anger or confusion as an example.
I would use the word nervous to describe my artwork.
Prompt 3: What are the physical words you could use to describe this piece? What one sensation word Comes to mind when looking at your picture? Hot, cold claustrophobic or free as an example.
Heavy is the word I would use.
Prompt 4: Does it remind you of anything? Have you been here before? What is it? Can you see a person?
My picture is clearly of space and an astronaut.
Prompt 5: Is there anything odd in your picture? This question can give you an insight on what might be wrong in your life, if you notice something is out of place or just doesn’t make sense.
The small object seems to be really heavy compared to it's size.
Prompt 6: What sizes are the objects in my image? This may suggest the importance or impact it is having on your life.
The image that the astronaut is reaching for is but. What he is holding on to is small.
Prompt 7: What’s in the center of your picture? This might show a core problem or the most prominent thing in your mind.
The astronaut and the small planet-like object.
Prompt 8: From what perspective did you draw the image? Did you draw it from a birds eye view? From the side? How far away was it? If there is inconsistencies in your image, there might be in your life to.
From the side but, very far away.
Prompt 9: What would it feel like if you were in the picture? What would you see? What would you notice? What would you feel?
Quite scary really, the astronaut is so close but, yet so far away.
Prompt 10: What does it mean to you? Once you’ve answered all the other questions, think about what it means to you, what is it trying to teach you?
With this picture and my thought bubble I feel like it could be representing me for example, the astronaut is holding on to something so small but yet so heavy, whilst trying to reach for something bigger. For me I need to "let go" of the small stuff in order to reach my goals. 
If you enjoyed these activities and would like more, we strongly recommend that you invest in an art therapy book like this one below.

 Art therapy exercise book for mental illnesses

By understanding your thoughts and feelings on a better level, you can begin to mold them into creating the behavior which you desire, meaning that you can choose how you act and your attitude towards things.
Some of the links in this blog may be affiliate links which means you can purchase the product and I will make a commission of it but IT WILL NOT be at an extra cost to you, any money I make through this is put towards the upkeep and improvement of this blog. Thank you in advance, Jake.
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