Art Therapy: Definition & Benefits

By Stephanie Kirby|Updated October 5, 2022

When it comes to treating mental health challenges, there are many different forms of treatment available. While most people think of the typical movie scene of someone sitting on a couch with a therapist taking notes in a chair next to them, therapy can look a lot of different ways. It can be individual, in groups, online, and in different modalities such as behavior or talk therapy, etc. Art therapy is an emerging approach in individual and group spaces among both children and adults. Outside a professional setting, many use art as a form of self-therapy as it is a way to express difficult emotions that are hard to say out loud. It can feel cathartic to use art as an outlet, and research continuously proves its benefits of it as a therapeutic tool time and again. Continue reading to learn more about what art therapy entails and how art therapy can benefit you.

there are a few different forms of art therapy

Art Therapy Works When The Words Won't Come

What Is Art Therapy?

In the simplest explanation, art therapy is the process of creating and interpreting art as a form of therapy. Art therapy providers who are trained in art therapy help patients work through their emotions, feelings, and situations through art such as painting, drawing, and sculpting.

Art therapy isn't simply just making "art." There is a creative process that the therapist uses to help guide the patient on the right path. Art therapy can be a good way to gain insight into what you are feeling yourself and can help your provider know what areas to focus on.

For example, you may learn about difficult issues in relationships, unnecessarily held beliefs about yourself and your life, remarkably hard individual life events, or a squeamish belief you have through your art.

You may paint something that you didn’t even know was a symbol for a firm belief you have. Your audience’s attention (your therapist) can help you learn more about what it means and the understandable ways your struggles come out in your certain art works.

Can Anyone Use Art Therapy?

Art therapy isn't something that just anyone can do. It's not about the artist's ability of you or your therapist. Instead, it's about the insight that you are both able to gain through the process. It can be used for ordinary dilemmas of everyday life or deep-seated traumas. Therapists who offer art therapy options are specially trained in using these types of materials.


If you have stylistic concerns or believe you’re not a good artist, that’s okay. Famous art therapists and psychologists are in widespread agreement that people of all ages, backgrounds, genders, sexualities, races, and classes can benefit from art. Art therapy offers powerful solutions to the widest possible audience possible. Although art therapy may be a new method to you, it has a normal historical significance and can have latent therapeutic potential.


Art therapy services can be beneficial to a wide variety of people looking for new coping skills. It increases self-expression and creative expression, and peer-reviewed studies show it as effective in the treatment of many different conditions and issues, including:

  • Emotional conflicts
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-esteem issues
  • General mental well-being
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Self-awareness
  • Common mental illness concerns such as anxiety and depression
  • Behavioral mental health problems
  • Trauma symptoms
  • Hallucinogenic psychological symptoms
  • Personal insight
  • Human development
  • Social skills for those with autism or other social conditions
  • Healing process

There are several different options that therapists have to learn how to use art therapy in their practice. Some therapists have only studied art therapy and have only a license through the art therapy credentials board, and others go through traditional routes to become a therapist, such as a doctorate or master's in psychology, and then add on special training in art therapy.

When looking for art therapists to work with, see if you can find someone that has an ATR credential. This shows that they have completed the process of registering their services with the National Art Therapy credentials board. Taking this step is a good way for a therapist to show a focus on alternative therapies, with one in particular: art therapy.

Therapeutic Benefits Of Art

Some people aren't able to put into words what they are feeling or have experienced. However, a therapist who knows how to use art therapy can help them to draw that information out through pieces that they create.

Art therapy can help in several ways. Art therapy can help you identify feelings that you haven't realized are just below the surface. By working through and completing the process of creating, art therapy can help build your self-esteem. Art therapy is also a good way to relieve stress and help fight anxiety and depression. Art therapy can help you to experience emotional release.

There are times when even trying to find the words just seems like too much. Art therapy allows you to pour out all those feelings in a healthy way without having to express what you are thinking and feeling verbally. Art therapy can also be offered in groups. This can help because you will be working on your piece of art, but it can help you to start to form connections with other people.

Who Art Therapy Helps

Above, it was touched on a little that art therapy can be helpful for those that have a hard time communicating feelings. This could be because they have lived through a traumatic experience or because they have a disability that makes it difficult to communicate verbally.

Art therapy is also great for those that are either unable or don't know how to process through and understand what they're feeling.

There are also several art books on this topic. For example, in John Armstrong and Alain de Bottom’s book, “Art as Therapy,” the authors propose that art therapy allows for a more glamorous life. The book involves reframing therapy and the idea that it must be one way to work for patients. The authors’ contention with regular therapy offers a fresh perspective on what it means to heal.

Do I Have To Be An Artist?

Art therapy is not really about art. It's not about the finished piece of work that you have at completion. Art therapy is all about the process and what you experience as you work through it. So it doesn't matter if you are very artistic or not artistic at all; you can still get the same therapeutic benefits from participating in art therapy.

Deciphering Art's Meaning

Your therapist is not going to tell you what your artwork means. Instead, they are going to ask you questions that get you thinking about the deeper meaning of your work. They know how to direct your thoughts in a way to help you start to process through your emotions based on what you have created during a session. If you are attending a session with a therapist that tries to 100% decipher your artwork for you, then you need to find a new provider.

There is no limit as to what can be used for art therapy. You may use a pencil and paper, paints, markers, fabric, glitter, clay, crayons, or a combination of things together.

What To Expect With Art Therapy

If you've been through a traumatic experience, art can help you sort through the memories and feelings that are associated with that event. An art therapist who has been licensed with the art therapy credentials board has experience in these topics. This can bring up a lot of powerful emotions and memories that can be difficult to deal with. However, many find the experience less threatening when doing art therapy than when just sitting and talking with a therapist.

While art therapy might sound like a lot of fun, it's not painted and pours party. You aren't getting together with friends to have a good time and try to recreate someone else's painting. You are sitting with a mental health professional and potentially digging up feelings and memories that you usually try to push down or away.

This can be an exhausting experience. When your art therapy session is completed, there is a good chance that you will feel very tired. You might also be dealing with a lot of emotions still as well. It's probably not the best time to plan for some activity. You will most likely want to be able to go somewhere that you can rest.

art as therapy

Structure, Schedule

Like most in-person one-on-one sessions, art therapy sessions are generally just under an hour long. There is no set number of times that you need to attend art therapy to benefit from it. However, on average, people will attend 6-12 art therapy sessions as they make progress and grow.

You can start your search for an art therapy provider who has passed the art-therapy credentials board online. Make sure that you look at both their credentials and experience for art therapy. You don't want to choose to work with someone that is trying it out just because they enjoy art — that's not art therapy. You want to find a professional who is trained in art therapy because you want them to be able to help prompt you through the art therapy process.

Other Alternative Therapies

While art therapy is great alternative approach, don't forget that you should find the method that works the best for you. It's great if art therapy can help you get the breakthrough that you were hoping to find. However, if you try art therapy and are still struggling, or if you are looking for a different type of therapy, then make sure you get the help you are after.

You can meet with art therapy professionals for traditional sessionsin person through private practice. You can also try online therapy. This approach allows you to meet with a therapist without having to leave the comfort of your own house.

The most important thing is not how you decide to get therapy, but that you can get the help that you need. Mental health challenges are very treatable. And, while it might take some trial and error, you can find the right combination of treatments that will help you make the most progress.

art as therapy

Art Therapy Works When The Words Won't Come

Art As Therapy Conclusion

For more information on art therapy as an alternative treatment for mental health challenges, talk to your general practitioner or your current therapist to see if art therapy is something that could work for you!

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