Art Therapy as a Personal Growth Method
Human civilization has always held a special place for art. It has served as a method for creative expression, a way to encapsulate stories and memories, and a major form of communication. Stemming from ancient cave paintings and evolving into contemporary, modern masterpieces, art has adapted with people.
As society progresses through many historical and cultural events, art proves to be something that can document these experiences and speak on a personal level to many people. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of engaging in artistic pursuits, showcasing how art can enhance our lives, facilitate personal growth, and improve mental well-being – and why the topic of art therapy is so significant.
Christianne Strang, professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama and former president of the American Art Therapy Association states that “Creativity in and of itself is important for remaining healthy, connected to yourself, and connected to the world.”
In conversation with this quote, Girija Kaimal, researcher of art therapy at Drexel University, finds that “anything that engages [the] creative mind – the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate – is good for you.” Kaimal writes more about the topic here.
Let’s dive into these claims. What specifically is happening in our brains that makes the activation of the creative mind so beneficial?
Activating the Creative Mind
Many scientists assert that the brain is a predictive machine. It uses information in front of us to make predictions about what we need to do next to survive and thrive.
When one makes art, they are making a series of decisions – what paper to use, what drawing utensil, what color, and how to translate thoughts onto paper. Throughout the artistic process, decisions are also made on how to interpret what is being drawn. Ultimately, these facts lead to one conclusion: whatever your brain is working to draw, it will prepare for.
By focusing on drawing positive images, one may be able to imagine and prepare themselves for better possibilities or a future. Practicing art therapy and actively creating positive images will benefit mental health.
The Reward Center
Despite the uncertainty or even fear that can stem from beginning an art piece, studies show that visual expression and stimulation result in a reward pathway to the brain being activated. With this comes an increase in serotonin, a chemical which controls well-being and happiness.
In fact, a 2017 study published in “The Arts in Psychotherapy” found that out of 26 participants who all partook in art-related activities, all of them experienced an increase in blood flow to the brain while creating art. This makes art therapy a valid possibility to increase mental well-being.
Lowering Stress with Art Therapy
Cortisol, a hormone which helps the body respond to stress, increases when one is under stress. Participating in artistic efforts has been proven to significantly lower cortisol levels, proving art therapy to be an effective method to improve well-being.
A sample size of 39 healthy adults in a 2016 “Journal of the American Art Therapy Association” study found that even just 45 minutes of creating art in a studio setting allowed for notably lower cortisol levels within the body.
Have you ever been so deeply focused on something that you lose your sense of time or awareness of the things around you? You’re able to get a lot done, and your mind is solely honed in on the task at hand.
Well, this is what the scientific community calls “flow” or being “in the zone”, and it’s something that art therapy facilitates quite well.
What happens in the brain during flow state is known as “relaxed reflective state”, something which increases focused attention to a task, and most importantly, sense of pleasure. Frontiers in Psychology, in their 2018 study, finds that “flow” was characterized by increased wave activity in the frontal areas of the brain, an area which is responsible for one’s ability to plan, organize, and monitor actions to achieve a goal.
Art Therapy, The Bottom Line
The bottom line? We need to make room in our lives for art therapy, even just ten minutes a day for doodling. It’s an easy and mostly cost-free addition to our lives – and its benefits are unmatched.
With its positive effects on the brain and capability to improve our mental health and psychological well-being, art therapy is not something that should be ignored.
Well… How Can I Start?
There are a number of different art therapy methods to play around with, and many more that extend outside of this list. Read below to find the benefits of each of them.
Modeling clay is great to play around with because it engages many sensory experiences and parts of the brain. A sense of touch, dimensions, sight, and possibly smell and sound are all activated while practicing self-expression. This is likely to be more beneficial to traditional pen-and-paper art styles.
Ranging from incredibly complex to basic geometric shapes, mandala designs are creative, symmetrical spiral designs that are proven to be more effective in boosting mood than simply coloring on a blank paper. Specifically, the practice of coloring in geometric shapes are shown to be great at decreasing anxiety, and can be used as a stress manager.
The creation of collages boosts the creative areas of our brain. It stimulates many senses as we put objects together, and can prompt many memories, depending on what’s included in the collage.
Despite the slightly varying differences between different art therapy methods, there is no medium or art activity that is “the best”. Simply do whatever is beneficial for you at any given time.