Definition And Benefits Of Art Therapy Explained

Updated December 6, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 to express difficult emotions that are hard to express with words. Art therapy uses different art media and the creative process to help people get in touch with their innermost thoughts and feelings. Creative expression through art can serve as a cathartic outlet and research has shown its benefits as a therapeutic tool. Continue reading to learn more about what art therapy entails and how art therapy can benefit you.

Art Therapy Works When Talking Does Not

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. This form of therapy is a recognized field that requires the therapist to have certification and training in both art and psychotherapy.

Art therapy is a creative process that the therapist uses to help guide the patient on the right path. This process help you to gain insight into what you are feeling and can help your provider know what areas to focus their therapy with you. For example, you may learn about difficult issues in relationships, unnecessarily held beliefs about yourself and your life, and remarkably hard individual life events through your art.

You may paint something that you did not realize 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 works of art.

Therapeutic Benefits Of Art Therapy

Art therapy services can be beneficial to a wide variety of people looking for new coping skills. For example, some people find it difficult to put into words what they are feeling or have experienced. A therapist who knows how to use art therapy can help them to draw that information out through pieces that they create. Peer-reviewed studies has revealed that art therapy is effective in the providing insight into how to manage the following:

  • Emotional conflicts

  • Eating disorders

  • Self-esteem issues

  • General mental well-being

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Self-awareness

  • Mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression

  • Behavioral mental health problems

  • Trauma symptoms

  • Personal insight

  • Human development

  • Healing process

Art therapy can help you identify feelings that you have not realized are just below the surface. By working through and completing the process of creating, art therapy can help build your self-esteem. Drawing pictures, painting, or sculpting are tools you can use to experience emotional release to work through feelings of anxiety and depression. 

There are several different options that therapists must 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. Others go through traditional routes to become a therapist, such as a doctorate or master's degree 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 ATCB (Art Therapy Credentials Board) credential. This credential shows your therapist has gone through intensive testing in the field of art therapy. Taking this step is a good way for a therapist to show a focus on alternative therapies, with one in particular: art therapy.

Who Art Therapy Helps

Above, it was touched upon 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 serves to help people express this experience without having to verbalize these incredibly horrible moments. It can also serve persons who are experiencing medical, developmental, educational, psychological, or social impairments. 

Art therapy is practiced in different settings, including rehabilitation, mental health, educational, and medical. While you may only participate in this form of therapy individually with their therapist, you can also practice art therapy in workshops and in small groups. These small groups and workshops not only offer a place to express yourself quietly and peacefully. But you also have an opportunity to connect with others in a fun expressive atmosphere. 

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.

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 have lived 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. Talking about these events 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.

During an art therapy session, you will be working with a mental health professional and potentially digging up feelings and memories that you may usually try suppress. 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 may also be working through your emotions and problems that still need resolution still. Be sure to set time after your sessions for recuperation and relaxation. You will most likely want to be able to go to a calm place where you can rest.

Structure And Schedule Of Sessions

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. Be wary of people who say they are practicing art therapy because they enjoy art — this is not art therapy. You want to find a professional who is trained in art therapy to help prompt you through the art therapy process.

Other Alternative Therapies

While art therapy is a beneficial alternative for psychotherapy, be sure to choose the method that works the best for you. If art therapy can help you get the breakthrough that you were hoping to find, then it is a good fit. However, if you try art therapy and are still struggling, or if you are looking for a different type of therapy, then consider seeking another therapy option that supports your needs.

You can meet with art therapy professionals for traditional sessions in person through 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. Art therapy online with a licensed therapist have been shown in studies to increase the relevance and reach of art therapy without compromising the safety of the clients. 

Art Therapy Works When Talking Does Not


There are times when even trying to find the words to describe your mental state is simply overwhelming. 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. 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.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get The Support You Need From One Of Our TherapistsGet Started