What is art therapy? Benefits for mental health

We take a closer look at the benefits of art therapy for your mental health and wellbeing...

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Painting: it’s not only for the skilled artists. As adults, we are prone to shying away from hobbies – especially creative ones – if we do not possess a natural talent for them. However, trying a new creative hobby, like drawing or painting, could provide a range of benefits for your mental health – so much so, it’s often called ‘art therapy’.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy can simply be defined as the creation of art for its mental health and wellbeing benefits. No matter your skill level, art therapy is about picking up a pen, pencil or paintbrush and giving yourself permission to create freely, with no judgement or self-criticism.

‘Art therapy, is not about being a latent Picasso,’ add Penelope Orfanoudaki and Romny Vandoros, who run Artful Retreats. ‘It’s about using the mindful, painstaking attention of creating art as a therapeutic process.’

‘Before we had language, we used art to communicate our feelings,’ explains Romny. ‘Art therapy is about developing a greater sense of self through creativity.’

Looking to pick up a paint brush and create a work of art? First, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of art therapy for mental health…

Benefits of art therapy for mental health

Writer and artist, Juliet Davey, explores the benefits of art therapy for your mental health and overall wellbeing…

1. Painting distracts you from your worries

It is hard to dwell on troubles once in the flow of a painting. The process of painting has the power to engage you so fully, bringing you into the present moment. For this reason, its a great way to distract yourself from your worries or concerns in day-to-day life. It’s also a great tool for practicing mindfulness.

2. Art therapy can reduce stress

Studies show that both creating and observing art can reduce cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’. Doing something you love also releases endorphins – feel-good chemicals that combat stress and reduce pain.

3. Creating art can build your self-esteem

It’s normal to feel anything but confident as you start a new painting or drawing. However, art provides a challenge and with each hour you paint or draw, you are building your skills. Over time, as you witness your own improvement, you’re sure to feel a sense of achievement, which will ultimately build your self-esteem.

4. Painting promotes a healthy state of mind

Participants in a 2014 study who produced art demonstrated: ‘a significant improvement in psychological resilience’ as well as increased levels of “functional connectivity” in the parts of the brain responsible for introspection, self-monitoring and memory. The study, involving participants aged between 62 and 70, also concluded that creating artwork can delay ageing.

Try an art therapy retreat

If you need some extra guidance on your art therapy journey, why not try a retreat? After her children flew the nest, Vee Sey found herself living alone and keen to rediscover her passion for art. So, she decided to attend an art therapy retreat at Artful Retreats. Here, she shares her experience of using art therapy for mental health and wellness…

Here I am, aged 48 – too young to be old and too old to be young – on my own after waving goodbye to my precious daughter who has moved away to university, hot on the heels of my firstborn son. My heart is heavy and, when I am not exhausting myself working furiously or exercising, I feel rudderless and lonely. A bubble of sadness hovers over every day. I’m grieving but no one has died.

When I was a younger woman, like my daughter is now, my ambition was to be an artist – but alas, there were mouths to feed, so I settled on writer, which segued into journalist, and art fell by the wayside.

I have not drawn so much as a stick figure since my divorce 11 years ago, and that was the most uninspired still life you could imagine, scratched in budget pastels, which I stuck in a fancy frame as a rebellious exclamation: ‘This is me – I’m still here and I don’t need you, dude!’ Still, I am intrigued when the opportunity arises to explore this uncomfortable transition in my life through art therapy.

what is art therapy benefits for mental health

Discovering the benefits of art therapy

I set off, anxious about my lack of artistic nous. But my fears are dispelled when I meet the rest of the group in exquisite surroundings – a diverse bunch of loners, team players, older, younger, free spirits in beads and tattoos, professionals in fancy watches; chatty, quiet, open and guarded. We are all seeking something we cannot name.

First, we were given an artistic appetiser: to draw a circle, consider its shape and meaning for us, then create an image around it, for up to an hour. ‘There is no right or wrong, and we’ll never judge you,’ says Penelope. ‘And don’t overthink it!’ I take that last instruction seriously and, in less than 10 seconds, I draw a careless oval in black gel pen in my notebook.

‘You’re not allowed to judge me – but I’m not showing you what I did!’ I announce at our first gathering, establishing my joker status in the group. Beneath my lax effort, I have attempted self-analysis, writing: ‘Is it an emptiness, or is it an entrance to something else?’ I cringe now, and refuse to share.

Art therapy and self-reflection

One of the other participants has made a charming line drawing of what appears to be an astronaut, or a diver, underwater, his head encased in that circle. That person spent the full hour on it because – I realise – they, like any of us, deserved time for self-reflection.

I’ve been so busy caring for other people for two and a half decades, that I can’t look myself in the eye. I can’t even draw a circle if it means examining what I want. I decide there will be no more half-hearted scribbles in my secret book – from now on, I am going to do my fervent best.

what is art therapy benefits for mental health

Letting my art be guided by instinct and intuition

Our sessions continue. We close our eyes and use both hands to emulate our breathing on paper, via the motion of our crayons and the shapes we create blind. It’s a simple, hypnotic centring of the other senses.

Later, we lie on massive sheets of paper and have the shape of our bodies traced. I joke about feeling saddened by my lack of waist but there is no time to play the clown – we have a mere 90 minutes to create an artwork with that giant form as a base. Silence and concentration settle in and we get to work. It doesn’t escape me that we are exploring our perceptions of ourselves.

Naively, but intuitively, I use primary colours to tidily colour in my body, a tentative foray shackled by rules and learned behaviour. Then, I focus on my heart area and I am a little braver here, creating freer, flame-like shapes – to show depth of feeling, perhaps? Are these my unfulfilled passions?

I don’t have time to be clever, only honest, and the moments are ticking by. I embellish the right hand, the tool of my trade, and outline my feet as separate entities, making a wisecrack that I can’t find them.

Yet, despite my romantic view of myself as a rebel, I never draw outside the line. Why am I sticking within the expected boundaries, even here? I know this conformism is self-imposed and was necessary while I was raising my young…

Freeing my inner child with art therapy

Then, the memory of an innocent me, patting mud pies out of soil and grass for my father’s dinner comes to mind, and I think: ‘Hello, are you my inner child?’

Our sessions are punctuated by discussion and interpretation; building trust and friendship. During morning yoga, mealtimes and excursions away from our villa on the Bleverde Estate, near the heritage village of Gavalochori, we bond over mountains of gorgeous food. Romny and I discover a shared appetite for comedic singing, just because it’s fun.

Back in the studio, with each creation, we find out and reveal a little more about ourselves. Self-portraits in three colours; collaborative paintings of each other, symbolism and metaphor emerging, and technique – or plain old enthusiasm – evolving.

I stick my fingers into unctuous paints, layer crayon, pastel, ink and acrylic, and joyfully start to ignore borders – because this is self-expression, and why the hell not? As I liberate myself on paper, Penelope and Romny stand by, the kindest of guardians, guiding and observing, but never intruding.

Then, we are curators; it’s exhibition time and our final piece – and any realisations or insights we’d like to share – will be discussed. The talented artist who created the underwater astronaut has painted a dishevelled person with spinning, out-of-control legs, three figures hanging from the central body like kittens with claws in its skin. It is an image of burden and chaos. We hear of younger siblings that person must provide for; a brutal responsibility in a young life.

what is art therapy benefits for mental health

Reconnecting to ‘me’ before motherhood

I say my exhibition is closed, and everyone titters, yet there’s nowhere to hide. Speaking in public brings me out in hives, but I start to explain my work, my full-body creation from before propped up on a sunbed.

‘As you’ve probably realised,’ I begin, brightly, ‘I use humour to hide my feelings.’ Then, out of the blue, my mask collapses, my lips tighten and I begin to cry. That coping mechanism, the joker, is gone and, in a breaking voice, I tell my stranger friends: ‘I feel abandoned. Everyone I love is gone and I’m here all alone.’

I’m shocked by my childlike language; the emotion searing between the bones of my ribcage. I didn’t even understand what I was painting until I was asked to clarify it. My masterpiece, my ‘revelation’, is what I verbosely call a landscape of infinite dreams and possibility.

I’ve painted a disproportionately large bird, gliding grandly over pine trees, imaginary flowers and a sea of unnaturally vivid colours. The flames of my heart are there in the background – eruptions of volcanic heat in orange and red.

But it’s an open, fantasy sky, with sunbeams, moons and stars under her wings…once she understands that a whole life is not summarised by releasing her chicks into the world and being terrified of being on her own. I can clearly read its message to myself.

Reflecting on the benefits of art therapy

Back home, my mind holds onto this new awareness, though it hasn’t filtered entirely into my being. Creating space for my younger self to re-emerge has reminded me of who I was before motherhood – who I still am!

I am not healed – as if by magic paintbrush – but I know now that my journey through this life is not over – and I can add colour, texture, contrast and meaning to it, however I choose.

To find out more about Artful Retreats, visit artfulretreats.com.

More inspiration: Anxiety drawing – how daily sketching reduces stress