Ever catch yourself doodling during a tense moment, perhaps while on a frustrating phone call or waiting for an appointment you weren’t looking forward to? You may not have realized it, but you were using a simple form of art therapy.
Art therapy refers to any use of art for a therapeutic purpose, including relief from anxiety and stress. The theory behind art therapy suggests drawing, coloring, painting, and sculpting can help you tune into and express painful or difficult feelings you have trouble putting into words.
Drawing and coloring can be a helpful tool for anyone seeking new ways to manage anxiety symptoms. Not an artist? That’s OK — you don’t need any special skills to give art therapy a try.
Since its introduction in the mid-1900s, art therapy has helped people address a range of mental health symptoms.
Kelly Lynch, a licensed mental health counselor and registered art therapist in Seattle, WA, explains that art therapy can help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself — both through the creative process and the resulting artwork.
“The creative process promotes new perspectives that lie beyond the structure of language,” Lynch says. “Art uses metaphor, symbolism, and dynamic thoughts to represent the human experience in a way language cannot. This is particularly important for people who feel out of touch with their emotions or sense of self.”
Here’s how art can help:
It can help reduce stress
A constant undercurrent of anxiety threading through your day-to-day activities can leave you in a regular state of unease. This can start to affect everything from your sleep schedule to your appetite.
Putting pencil to paper allows you to give yourself some space from unwanted, often uncontrollable, thoughts and engage in an activity you can control. You decide what to draw and what colors to add to your design. While focused on the creative process, you aren’t giving energy to your anxiety.
There’s also some research to back up the stress-relieving effects of art:
- In a small 2007 study, participants listed 10 of their most significant worries. They then spent 20 minutes drawing or sorting through art prints. Participants who spent the time drawing reported greater improvement in negative mood symptoms than those who simply looked at art.
- In a small 2016 study, adults who participated in 45 minutes of art therapy by sculpting clay, drawing with markers, or making a collage felt more relaxed and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after the art exercise.
- Research from 2018 also suggests mindful coloring activities may help relieve test anxiety, a significant source of stress for many students.
Drawing can boost mindfulness
Mindfulness refers to your ability to stay present, engaged, and in tune with your thoughts, emotions, and sensations in your body.
If you live with anxiety, this might sound like a horrible idea. You want to get rid of anxious thoughts — not spend time sitting with them and fully experiencing them.
Yet as counterproductive as it may seem, spending some time with anxious thoughts can make it easier to release them.
Learning to identify and recognize difficult emotions is an important part of improved emotional regulation. Mindfulness can help you learn to accept painful feelings and let them go.
Getting in touch with the here and now through creativity can help you clear your head and better accept yourself in the moment, Lynch adds.
As you draw or color, distracting and unhelpful thoughts might pop up in your consciousness. Your attention, however, remains on your artwork. You focus on the movement of your hand across the page, the texture of the paper, and the brightness of any colors you add. You don’t engage with the feelings, and so they drift away.
The creative process also
Art can interrupt rumination
Drawing and coloring can distract you from the unwanted thoughts associated with anxiety.
Anxiety often involves rumination, otherwise known as repetitive looping thoughts. It sometimes seems as if fixating on the same worries can help you find a solution for them. But circling through the same thoughts often
When you want to find a way to take a break from distressing thoughts, drawing offers a way to focus your attention on something calming. Sketching, doodling, or coloring provides a way to ground yourself and get some peace from racing thoughts.
Art helps you find your flow
Flow describes an optimal state of mental engagement and focus. In a flow state, you might feel completely immersed in what you’re doing, to the point where you no longer notice outside distractions or troubling thoughts.
There are plenty of ways to enter a state of flow, but art activities like drawing or coloring are great ways to get started.
The trick to achieving flow lies in finding an activity that challenges you just the right amount. A flow state requires some mental involvement, but you still don’t need specific artistic abilities to benefit.
Try creating and coloring your own mandala, sketching a simple design, or carefully outlining and coloring something more detailed.
If you haven’t thought much about art since your middle school days, you might feel a little intimidated by the lack of guidelines or structure. After all, the last experience you had with art may have been a project with clear expectations: drawing a house, your family, or a basket of fruit, for example.
With art therapy, though, it’s the process itself that benefits you, so you really can’t go wrong. Anything you draw can help you express your feelings and attune you to the present moment.
You don’t need fancy pencils or an artist’s sketchpad to draw. Just keep a small notepad and a pencil or pen close to hand. When anxiety starts to creep up (or when you suspect you’re about to face some stress), break out your notepad and let your fingers guide you toward a more relaxed state of mind.
The act of doodling itself may help calm you, but you could notice some added benefit if you end up expressing your thoughts as you scribble.
Maybe you end up carving strong lines into the paper to relieve tension, or maybe you draw dark storm clouds to express a gloomy mood. Either way, doodling can act as an outlet for emotional overwhelm.
Drawing or sketching
If you have more time and space for drawing, and you plan to use art as a regular coping method, you might find larger sketches or designs appealing. A sketchbook, recycled printer paper, or a roll of butcher paper can provide plenty of creative space for anxiety relief.
Simply putting pen to paper and starting with some simple lines or doodles can help you jump into drawing without spending too much time thinking about what to draw.
As your hand moves across the paper, you may notice your work taking on a shape that reflects your anxious thoughts. Someone who feels trapped in a job or relationship and worried about potential outcomes, for example, might find themselves drawing boxes, cages, or locked doors.
If you have a hard time creating simple sketches or doodles, don’t worry. Coloring a pre-printed design can offer some of the same benefits as drawing.
You can find adult coloring books at many bookstores or department stores. You can also find designs online for free. No printer? Check your local library — many offer free or low-cost printing services.
Some research suggests coloring a mandala might be more beneficial for anxiety relief than free drawing or coloring other designs. The mandala, a Buddhist symbol representing the universe, is a circular geometric design widely used in meditation.
Mandala coloring books and online printouts can get you started, but you can also try your hand at creating your own design.
You don’t need experience or artistic abilities to benefit from anxiety drawing. Art therapy does, however, call for an open mind and authentic experimentation, Lynch says.
Keeping the following tips in mind can help you make the most out of drawing or coloring for anxiety.
Stay in the moment
Find a quiet place that’s free of distractions where you can spend 20–30 minutes drawing or coloring. Relaxing music can help enhance a calmer mindset, but it might also help to turn off the TV and mute your phone.
To enhance mindful awareness as you draw, Lynch recommends paying attention to how your pencil, crayon, or pastel feels in your hands. How does it sound and feel as it moves across the paper? Does the paper feel rough, smooth, or cool?
Remember, there are no mistakes
As you draw, try to avoid:
- going back and erasing
- wondering whether your drawing is good or bad
- worrying the proportions are off
- getting stuck on making your art accurate and realistic
Try to let your drawing take you along as it develops instead of setting expectations for yourself. The process is what matters, not the technical skill behind your drawing.
Instead of doubting your skills, focus on the creative process. If your art helps you manage anxious thoughts, it’s accomplishing its purpose.
Use what you know
You might want to try a coloring book to gauge the relaxation benefits for yourself. But, if you’re already in the habit of doodling, there’s no need to invest in any new materials (unless you want to, of course).
Your favorite pen and some scratch paper will do just fine. Remember, your art is for you alone, so it doesn’t have to look pretty or perfect.
“Therapy using the creative process can offer an important key to understanding emotional expression and experiences,” Lynch concludes.
Drawing, coloring, and other art therapy approaches can serve as helpful tools to cope with anxiety symptoms on your own.
That said, many therapists offer art therapy as part of a combined approach instead of a standalone treatment. Art therapy alone may not relieve serious or persistent anxiety. A trained therapist can help you explore other treatment options.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.