I think it’s safe to say that most of us enjoyed creating art as children. But how many of us continue making art throughout our adult years? Looks like we should all go back to the drawing board (pun intended!). Why? Creating art can help patients in a variety of ways. How? Making visual art, such as painting or drawing, can reduce stress and depression. Additionally, it can reduce pain and make it easier to live with a chronic disease.
And certainly, creating (or observing) visual arts is non-invasive, medication-free, inexpensive, and risk-free.
For the majority of this post (except for the section on the military programs), I am referring to visual arts when I use the term “arts”. Visual arts includes any activity in which you use your hands to create art, such as coloring, painting, sculpting, glassblowing, and making ceramics, mosaics, and collages.
How does creating art impact the brain?
Exposure to all kinds of arts promotes interconnectivity across a vast and complex network of billions of neurons in our brains. Interestingly, art has a unique capability to stimulate the parts of the brain that engage with reward, motor activity, perception, and the senses.
In other words, the process of creating art stimulates the creation of new neural pathways in your brain that improves your overall sense of well-being, prevents depression, and may even slow down the aging process.
Additionally, creating art forces a connection between your mind and body – when you create art, you use mental processes to think while engaging in physical movements. Also, creating art helps you express your feelings without using words. And the process can relax you and/or distract you, grounding you in the present, thereby diverting your focus away from your health concerns.
The medical community is increasingly embracing art.
Interestingly, more and more medical professionals are recognizing how creative arts can help with healing. In fact, arts in medicine programs are increasingly emerging throughout the US and worldwide.
For instance, the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida is committed to advancing research, education, and practice related to arts in health.
Moreover, there’s even a journal dedicated to this topic – Arts & Health – certainly a testament to value of this field. This journal examines the use of the arts in public health, health promotion, and healthcare. As such, they publish empirical research, policy analysis, theoretical discourse, systematic reviews, and examples of best practice.
Unsurprisingly, there is also an association for professional art therapists. The nonprofit American Art Therapy Association is dedicated to the growth and development of the art therapy profession.
What is art therapy?
Although you can certainly create art on your own, art therapists are trained to engage patients in creative expression to foster healing and well-being. Art therapists have at least a master’s degree, generally from a program that combines psychotherapy and visual arts.
- The process of making art is healing. People can achieve personal fulfillment, and repair emotional issues, by expressing themselves through art.
- Art therapists can gain insight into patients’ emotions by reviewing their art, then use these insights to help patients heal.
Art therapists work with patients of all ages, in a variety of settings, to help patients explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and cope with a physical illness or disability.
Simply put, art therapy can help you better understand your emotions, which can help you improve your emotional well-being.
What’s the difference between art therapy and creating art yourself?
In both situations, you benefit from the process of creating art. In art therapy, the therapist may use your art to help you identify your feelings, in an effort to help you heal.
Creating art can help patients with their moods, emotions, and stress.
In addition to relaxing and distracting you, creating art boosts self-esteem, and can improve your overall sense of well-being. Plus, it gives you a sense of accomplishment.
Interestingly, when you finish a creative project, you may experience a boost of dopamine which can make you feel good.
Importantly, studies show that engaging in creative activities can lead to a reduction in stress and depression. In fact, research shows that engaging with artistic activities – whether you are creating art or observing art – can enhance your mood, emotions, and other psychological states. Additionally, creating art could counter the effects of stress-related diseases.
For instance, in one study, 75% of the people who participated in a 45-minute art-making session had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after creating art.
Additionally, in another study, women diagnosed with cancer who regularly engaged in art as a leisure activity stated that creating art helped them in many ways. For example, creating art helped them focus on positive experiences instead of focusing on their illness. Additionally, the women stated that art-making enhanced their self-worth and identity, and helped them maintain a social identity that did not involve cancer.
Creating art can help patients with cognitive issues.
Research shows that engaging in arts and crafts could reduce the risk for dementia. Specifically, studies show that creating art (and other purposeful and meaningful activities such as music, drawing, and meditation) can stimulate the neurological system which can enhance health and well-being.
Additionally, creating art can enhance cognitive abilities and memory for people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other brain disorders. Interestingly, creating visual art helps improve the quality of life for these patients by providing a pleasurable activity, engaging their attention, and promoting cell growth in the brain. In fact, case studies and several small trials suggest that art therapy improves neuropsychiatric symptoms, social behavior, and self-esteem.
Creating art can help patients manage pain.
Interestingly, one study evaluated the impact of 1-hour art therapy sessions on cancer symptoms, including pain. Importantly, the art therapy sessions led to statistically significant reduction in 8 out of the 9 symptoms measured.
In another study, surgical or critical care patients who participated in guided imagery didn’t need as much narcotic pain medication as their counterparts, and they left the hospital earlier. Surprisingly, the same benefits were seen for patients who simply had a picture of a landscape on their hospital room wall.
Creating art can help family caregivers.
Visual art programs can help family caregivers as well. In one study, family caregivers for patients with cancer participated in a therapeutic art program. After the program, the caregivers reported significantly reduced stress, decreased anxiety, and increased positive emotions. Interestingly, participants also had more positive communication with the cancer patient in their care, and with healthcare providers.
More ways creating art can help patients.
Many studies show that art therapy can help patients dealing with a wide range of conditions, including:
- ADD & ADHD
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Chronic pain
- Grief and bereavement
- Intellectual disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Psychiatric conditions
- Sexual abuse
Are you interested in exploring how art therapy can help patients? If so, you can find abstracts on dozens of art therapy studies on the American Art Therapy Association’s Outcomes Bibliography. Importantly, to be included, studies had to:
- Assess the impact of art therapy on a measurable outcome.
- Measure the impact of treatment on a sample or treatment group.
- Use art therapy as measured distinctly and separately from other treatment intervention factors.
Importantly, note that many of the studies cited above were observational, with no control groups, and limited to comparing status before and after art therapy sessions. And many of the studies were small and/or short-term. All these factors make it hard to generalize the findings to wider populations.
However, this does not mean you cannot benefit from creating art and/or art therapy. In my opinion, it certainly can’t hurt to create art, it might help you, and it will be fun!
US military’s success with creative arts programs.
The US Military’s Creative Forces program aims to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran personnel exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers. Interestingly, the program provides creative arts therapies in medical facilities and through telehealth visits. Therapists provide art, music, and dance/movement therapies, as well as therapeutic writing instruction.
Importantly, note this program includes visual art-making as well as other creative arts. Therefore, their findings (below) regarding impact apply to a range of creative arts therapies.
Benefits of the Creative Forces program
According to Creative Forces, creative art therapy helps patients and their families in many ways. Importantly, Creative Forces finds their creative arts program has a wide-ranging impact, including:
Creative arts promote physical rehabilitation, including improved cognition, memory, sensory-motor function, impulse control, concentration, and sleep.
Creative arts promote psychological health, including improved interpersonal and communication skills, and helping with the management of difficult emotions (such as frustration, grief, anger). Additionally, it can reduce depression, stress, and anxiety.
Creative arts can reduce the time spent in medical care, and thereby lower healthcare costs.
What’s their research show?
Creative Forces conducts research on the impact of creative arts therapies. Importantly, their findings prove the value of these types of programs.
Their clinical research indicates that creative arts therapies can:
- Help in the recovery from traumatic experiences through meaning-making, positive reframing, and verbal processing.
- Reduce symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including flashbacks and nightmares, and interrupted sleep.
- Improve awareness and tolerance of PTSD/TBI symptoms such as hypervigilance, and pain and stress.
- Help participants develop healthy coping mechanisms by creating a safe environment and building rapport between therapist and patient.
- Help patients channel aggressive behaviors by providing a means to creatively express anger and anxiety.
- Foster the ability to experience hope and gratification, and increased confidence through strengths-based rehabilitation.
- Decrease isolation and stigma by providing meaningful interactions with others and improving communication with others.
Moreover, because they feel so strongly about the benefits of creative art therapies, their website states creative arts therapies are not optional, but are “NEED to HAVE” services.
Ready to create art?
If you are dealing with a serious physical or psychological condition, you may benefit from sessions with a trained art therapist. You can search for art therapists in your area on the American Art Therapy Association’s website.
Of course, you can also create art by yourself, or with friends and family. Just create something with your hands and enjoy the process. And don’t worry, you don’t have to create museum quality art to benefit from the experience.
Is music more your thing? Then read my blog post Can Music Help Patients Heal?
For tips that can help you get the best healthcare possible, read these posts:
- 10 Tips for a Better Medical Appointment.
- How Can You Get the Best Healthcare? Actively Participate!
- 10 Tips to Communicate Better with Doctors.
- Understanding Medical Information Is Harder Than Most Realize.
- What is the Best Time of Day for Medical Care?