Types of Art Therapy and Its Benefits

Can something as simple as painting soothe depression symptoms or keep your mind sharp? An expert weighs in.
types of art therapy

If you want to get better at drawing, painting or dancing, you can probably sign up for a group class at your local community center. But did you know that some of those classes can even be considered types of art therapy and may be led by a certified art therapist?

So, what is art therapy, exactly? And what’s the difference between an art therapy session and a night out at your local paint-and-sip studio?

Melanie Wallace, an associate marriage and family therapist and art therapist in Beverly Hills, explains some of the benefits of art therapy and what you can expect at your first session.

What Is Art Therapy?

It’s all in the name: Art therapy is a blend of art-making and psychological therapy.

But an art therapy session isn’t quite like doodling at home. With art therapy, a licensed professional can help tap into your creative expression to process a recent loss, difficult transition or even deal with depression or anxiety symptoms. Wallace says that for some people, art therapy is an excellent alternative to talking through difficult experiences or feelings.

In art therapy, the creative process is as important as the creation itself. In other words, you don’t need any artistic skills. Just enjoy the process!

Types of Art Therapy

Most art therapy refers to sessions involving visual art – painting, drawing, and sculpting, for example.

If you prefer to express yourself in other ways, you might enjoy a different type of creative arts-based therapy, such as music therapy, dance or movement therapy, or poetry and expressive writing therapy.

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Benefits of Art Therapy

Do you struggle to put words to what you’re thinking or feeling? Art therapy can help.

“Art gives us insight into the subconscious,” says Wallace. Expressing yourself through drawing, sketching or painting provides a path to work through stress, anger or sadness.

Research shows that art therapy can also help soothe depression, anxiety and even dementia. That’s probably because it offers a chance to socialize, tap into your creative skills and work through your thoughts and feelings along the way.

Art therapy offers important benefits to seniors experiencing memory loss or struggling with low self-esteem, Wallace says. It can also help with self-awareness and self-esteem, as well as emotional resilience, conflict resolution and social skills.

Who Is Art Therapy Good For?

Anyone can participate in an art therapy class or individual session, says Wallace. Art therapy can be particularly beneficial for:

  • People who have tried talk therapy and crave something more creative.
  • Folks who are artistically inclined.
  • Anyone experiencing high stress levels.
  • Seniors struggling with communication due to physical or cognitive decline.

Regardless of your age or reason for trying art therapy, seek out a licensed professional. Trained art therapists have completed graduate school coursework in the implementation of art therapy, says Wallace.

benefits of art therapy

What Happens in an Art Therapy Session?

First, remember an art therapy session is not the same as an art class, though both can help lift your mood.  An art therapy session can include a variety of art techniques beyond drawing or sketching, such as collage-making, finger painting, sculpting, doodling or even creating shapes out of a crumpled pieces of paper.

A typical art therapy session proceeds in three stages:

  1. Directive – The therapist offers you an art prompt such as, “what does sadness look like?” or “sketch the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning.”
  2. Creation – You take time to create your art. According to Wallace, it’s no problem if you don’t enjoy drawing. Some participants make collages with magazine cutouts or glue 3D sculptures with crumpled paper. “The sky’s the limit!” she says.
  3. Discussion – Once your art is complete, the therapist will ask questions to help you open up about your art and what’s on your mind.

What to Expect in Group Art Therapy

Do you prefer the camaraderie of painting or drawing with a friend? Then a group art therapy session might be the perfect way to boost your mood, sharpen your mental processing and learn new creative skills.

People often work in pairs or trios during a group art therapy session. A group art piece might begin with everyone getting a piece of paper and drawing a quick scribble. Then, everyone passes the paper to the left and adds to the new drawing in front of them. The process continues until the therapist signals that it’s time to stop and discuss.

In another situation, Wallace says she might suggest that participants “draw a community.” After the group decides what community means to them (what should be included in the picture), everyone works together to sketch, draw or color on a large butcher paper.

Most art therapists provide the supplies for classes or individual sessions. But if you’d like to enjoy the benefits of artistic expression at home, she recommends stocking up Copic sketch markers, Sakura Expressionist oil pastel set, Crayola colored pencils and Sketchbooks with perforated pages.

What’s your favorite creative expression? Share the artistic methods you use to unwind or keep your mind sharp in the comments below. 

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