How Art Therapy Can Help Manage Anxiety Symptoms

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

What is art therapy, and what are its benefits? When we think of art therapy, many of us recall images of young children in a room with a therapist drawing their feelings. But the benefits of art therapy don’t necessarily stop when childhood ends. Art therapy for adults can be an effective tool used alone or in conjunction with other treatments for a variety of mental health challenges, including anxiety.

Some artists say that part of the reason they create is that it gives them an emotional outlet in their daily lives. While almost all of us draw or create in some way as children, many of us cease to do so as we grow older. It can be a useful tool for self-expression, especially when talk therapy is difficult. It can be conducted in person and online.

Everyone manages anxiety differently

Art therapy and anxiety

As defined by the American Psychological Association, art therapy is “the use of artistic activities, such as painting and clay modeling, in psychotherapy and rehabilitation.” A qualified art therapist may mix it with more traditional methods through the course of treatment to provide their clients with optimal opportunities for self-expression.

Generalized anxiety disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is often characterized by "persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things," according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). GAD generally runs on a spectrum according to the severity of the anxiety symptoms. 

People living with GAD may find their worry incredibly hard to control, so much so that their everyday lives can become challenging. They may also have challenges maintaining both personal and professional relationships. 

Other anxiety disorders

In addition to GAD there are several other types of anxiety, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobia-related disorders.

People with anxiety can have multiple anxiety diagnoses, such as GAD and OCD, for example. Because mental health issues often cluster together, individuals may also experience other disorders, such as substance use disorders or depressive episodes, prior to diagnosis.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Art therapy and GAD

One possible use is in treating GAD and helping to manage symptoms overall. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists use “active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship” in order to “enrich the lives of individuals, families, and communities.” These therapists normally believe this treatment can reduce symptoms by allowing patients to reach their emotions more easily than traditional talk therapy. Using a different sense of the body to express nuanced emotion can help the message come through more clearly.

To see if this treatment could influence symptom reduction, researchers studied its efficacy in treating adult women with anxiety disorders like GAD and panic disorder. Through a randomized control trial study, participants completed online assessments. After creating art, they reported more positive self-evaluation. Post-treatment results also showed a reduction in physical symptoms, such as elevated heart rate.

Effect on other mental health challenges

A meta-study observed art therapy's treatment effects on anxiety disorder and depression and found that it can help treat symptoms of both conditions in the majority of patients. Of the seven different papers cited in the meta-study, four reported post-treatment anxiety symptom reduction as well as reduction of severe depression symptoms.

Potential benefits for managing symptoms

Art therapy for managing symptoms has long been a popular tool used in conjunction with more traditional methods because of its many potential benefits. It can serve as an alternate mode of communication. It can also center thoughts, break the cycle of rumination, provide dialogue direction, ease nervous clients, and have an overall calming effect. 

Supplements and complements verbal expression

Some people experiencing anxiety and depression may also be introverted. Introverts may feel less comfortable opening up, especially if they are still in the early stages of forming a relationship with their therapist. This method can be a way for clients to express how they are feeling at a given moment without having to voice it in words.

Improves physical health

A study published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science examined the effects of mindfulness-based art therapy conducted on patients that have both Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) and anxiety and depression. Researchers found that a significant number of patients participating in the study reported reduced feelings of depression and anxiety, reduced body mass index, and significantly reduced blood pressure due to the treatment.

Interrupts cycles of rumination

Ruminating about past events or sources of worry can be one of the major contributing factors to GAD. Rumination can be thought of as a repeated cycle of thinking about a single instance or memory in your life. The cycle can be hard to break; if it is broken, it may easily return.

It can engage other senses that require the mind to turn its attention away from the cycle of rumination and toward the present. By engaging the mind to visualize and create media with the hands, it may be less able to devote energy to the thought or memory on which the mind is ruminating.

Provides a direction to be used in dialogue

Sometimes talking alone can be difficult between client and therapist if the client has a hard time determining exactly what they are feeling. Clients may feel uncomfortable opening up completely in a verbal way. Or they may want to verbalize how they're feeling, but have difficulty putting their thoughts and emotions into words.

Everyone manages anxiety differently

Eases nervous clients

Someone experiencing anxiety may already feel very apprehensive about talking to a therapist in the first place. Getting them to walk through the door or even make eye contact can be tough for some people who are particularly anxious. 

Art therapy can be one way to make a difficult situation a little more tolerable. It can create an opportunity for a client to focus their attention on the task at hand and less on the uncomfortable position they find themselves in.

At the same time, therapists can use creative activities to initiate a conversation with a client that may have otherwise taken much longer to begin. This can give them a jumpstart on the road to progress.

Centers your mind and focuses thoughts

According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, there is evidence that engagement with artistic activities, either as an observer of the creative efforts of others or as an initiator of one's creative efforts, can enhance one's moods, emotions, and other psychological states as well as have a salient impact on important physiological parameters." Many who use coloring books or clay modeling can attest to the feeling of flow that these practices create. In addition, recent research adds to the growing body of evidence of the benefits of the arts for enhancing well-being.

Can be integrated with other modalities

Anxiety art therapy is a form of integrative mental health, which means that it can easily be integrated with other therapeutic approaches.

When used in conjunction with other modes of counseling, both types can complement each other and serve as a propellent forward when a tough crossroads is encountered.

How online counseling can help

If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, it can be difficult to reach out for help, especially in person. Symptoms can make it hard to speak to someone new, and even leaving the house to travel to sessions can be challenging. Online therapy may offer a more comfortable alternative for people with anxiety. With this type of counseling, you may chat with a therapist online and get professional help without leaving home. 

Online art therapy can be an effective form of treatment. As a recent study demonstrated, art therapy can be successfully adapted to the telehealth format.

Takeaway

Art therapy often involves creating various types of art and interpreting them to gain insight. It can be helpful in treating anxiety in clients of all ages. It can provide an emotional outlet, stop the cycle of rumination, and counteract the potential physical consequences of anxiety all while offering a way to explore artistic expression and boost self-esteem. 

Regulate anxiety in a compassionate environment
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