Have you ever had pent-up stress that you couldn’t express in words? Or feelings you didn’t want to share because they felt too painful or shameful?

Art therapy is one way to release stress. It’s all about expressing yourself through visuals, movements, symbols, sounds, or other nonverbal forms.

It can be especially helpful if you’re feeling avoidance, confusion, or shame about speaking your thoughts and feelings out loud.

And the best part is, anyone can benefit. Maybe you’re stressed at work, dealing with a conflict in your relationship, or you’ve taken on caring for your aging parents or another family member. Caring for yourself will help you care better for the people in your life, too.

Whatever’s causing you stress, art therapy can help.

The essential purpose of art therapy is to help people recover — from mental illness and other health challenges — through artistic expression.

Practicing art therapy is a process of deep introspection and emotional processing — looking inside yourself and acknowledging your own feelings. The art you make during this practice is intended to be an external expression of what you’re experiencing inside.

Through this, it’s a way of coming to terms with your own feelings, accepting them, practicing self-compassion, and easing any fear you might have by associating those feelings with positive sensory and social experiences.

Studies have found art therapy helps people with mental health issues manage their thoughts and behavior.

Art therapy can take many forms, including:

  • theater therapy
  • music therapy
  • body psychotherapy
  • dance movement psychotherapy
  • drawing, painting, and craft therapy

Experts say that art therapy can allow people to express their thoughts and feelings in ways they may not be able to by speaking or writing alone. You might not be able to find the words, but you still feel the feelings.

Art therapists are certified mental healthcare professionals with a minimum of a master’s-level degree.

They work with individuals and groups in many different settings, including hospitals, private practices, schools, and senior communities.

Some stress is inevitable in life. People often experience it in reaction to perceived challenges in their environment.

Stress activates your autonomic “fight-or-flight” system, which makes changes throughout your body to prepare you to take action — alterations in your muscle tone, attention, blood flow, and much more.

If the stress-causing situation isn’t resolved, your body can stay in this activated state, leading to burnout.

That’s why finding healthy ways to let go of stress can make a big difference.

Art therapy offers an effective way to cope that can have powerful calming effects on stress and anxiety.

One 2018 review looked at 37 studies on the effects of art therapy in people with anxiety and found that participants had significantly reduced stress after they did 1 of 4 forms of arts interventions, including music therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, or dance/movement therapy.

Visual art therapy possibly helped reduce pre-exam anxiety in students in one study, and potentially lowered anxiety in people who were about to be released from prison in another study.

2019 research in 47 women with anxiety disorders found 10 to 12 sessions of art therapy over 3 months may reduce women’s anxiety, improve their quality of life, and help them regulate their emotions better.

More research is needed on the physical and mental health benefits of art therapy, but many studies have shown it has promising therapeutic effects for many health challenges.

Art therapy may also reduce cognitive decline and help boost quality of life.

Some research has found it may help reduce depression and increase emotional regulation, partly by encouraging acceptance of emotions and taking action toward personal goals.

Art therapy can provide an outlet for relief for people with mental health conditions, particularly ones that are related to stress, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One 2020 review looked at the results from 20 studies of visual art therapy in people with PTSD who had undergone one or more traumatic events that caused extreme stress.

Art therapy appeared to help the people with PTSD in several ways, including by:

  • helping with trauma symptoms, including dissociation, anxiety, nightmares, and sleep issues
  • processing their memories of the traumatic experience
  • developing a holistic sense of self
  • increasing well-being
  • boosting self-image

It may help with physical health conditions, too.

People who have done art therapy as a supplemental therapy have shown improvements in symptoms and well-being across several conditions, including cancer, heart failure, HIV/AIDS, dementia, and end-stage renal disease.

Art therapy sessions are usually led by a qualified art therapist who guides people through the process.

That said, you can still get lots of benefits from making art on your own.

The power of drawing

Drawing or coloring can help reduce stress in the moment, even if you don’t reflect on your emotions.

One 2020 study on 60 undergraduate students found that coloring, drawing a design, and drawing to express emotions all reduced signs of anxiety.

To get started with drawing, you’ll want to get set up with:

  • blank paper
  • one or more writing tools, like a pen, pencil, or marker
  • a space to write, like a table or desk
  • a timer — it can help to set one for some devoted drawing time so you can fully immerse yourself without feeling the need to look at the clock

Art therapy techniques to try

  • Draw your body and the feelings it contains right now: Reflect on how your body is feeling emotionally and physically at this moment. Then draw an outline of your body and fill it in with those feelings. You can use different patterns, textures, or colors to represent different feelings.
  • Do a brain dump: Draw a circle on the page and write or draw all the things you’re currently thinking and feeling. It can be as literal or as simple and symbolic as you want. Limit your time to 1 minute and see what comes out.
  • Create or color in a mandala: Coloring in mandalas and other patterns may help reduce anxiety more than a free coloring exercise.
  • Follow an art therapy exercise on YouTube: You can search “art therapy exercise” to find guided art therapy videos, like this one.
  • Doodle: All you need is a pen and paper. Freely draw any images or abstract shapes that come to mind and let your mind wander.
  • Start an art journal: Get in the art zone on a regular basis. Choose the size and paper of your journal depending on what kind of media you want to work with. You could draw, color, paint, collage, and more.

Find an art therapist

If you’d like to try art therapy, you can find a certified art therapist through this online search tool from the American Art Therapy Association.

Was this helpful?

Art therapy has stress-relieving benefits whether you use pencil crayons on paper, move your body to the music, sing, mold clay, or express yourself in another artistic way.

If you want guided art therapy, consider working with a credentialed art therapist who can guide you appropriately through the practice of self-reflection through art.

But you might be surprised how good simply drawing or coloring can make you feel.