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Art Therapy

Applications, Benefits

The use of art to express feelings, emotions, and perceptions through the creation and analysis of visual and other sensory symbols and works.

Art therapy, sometimes called expressive art or art psychology, encourages self-discovery and emotional growth. It is a two-part process, involving both the creation of art and the discovery of its meaning. Rooted in Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung's theories of the subconscious and unconscious, art therapy is based on the premise that visual symbols and images are the most accessible and natural form of communication to the human experience. Patients are encouraged to visualize, and then create, the thoughts and emotions that they can't express verbally. The resulting artwork is then reviewed, and its meaning interpreted by the patient. The analysis of the artwork typically enables a patient to gain some level of insight into their feelings and allows them to work through these issues in a constructive manner. Art therapy is typically practiced in conjunction with individual, group, or family psychotherapy (or verbal therapy). While a therapist may provide critical guidance for these activities, an important feature of effective talk therapy is that the patient/artist, not the therapist, direct the interpretation of their artwork.

Some mental health professionals also view art therapy as an effective diagnostic tool for the identification of specific types of mental illness or traumatic events. In the late 19th century, French psychiatrists Ambrose Tardieu and Paul-Max Simon both published studies on the visual characteristics of and symbolism in the artwork of the mentally ill. They found that there were recurring themes and visual elements in the drawings of patients with specific types of mental illness. More recently, psychiatric literature has explored common themes and symbols in the artwork of sexual abuse survivors and victims of trauma.


Art therapy can be a particularly useful treatment tool for children, who often have limited language and communications skills. By drawing or visually expressing their feelings, even if they can't identify or label the emotions, younger patients have a starting point from which to address these issues. Art therapy is also valuable for adolescents and adults who are unable or unwilling to verbalize thoughts and feelings.

Beyond its use in mental health treatment, art therapy is also employed as an adjunct (or complementary) therapy to traditional medicine for the treatment of biologically based diseases and conditions. The correlation between mental health and physical health is well documented. Art therapy has been used in the healing process to relieve stress and develop coping mechanisms, in an effort to treat both the physical and mental needs of the patient.

Although art therapy has traditionally centered on visual mediums (paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc.), some mental healthcare providers have broadened the definition to include music, film, dance, writing, and other artistic genres.


  • Self-discovery. At its most successful, art therapy triggers an emotional catharsis (a sense of relief and wellbeing through the recognition and acknowledgement of subconscious feelings).
  • Personal fulfillment. The creation of a tangible reward can build confidence and nurture feelings of self-worth. Personal fulfillment comes from both the creative and the analytical components of the process.
  • Empowerment. Art therapy can help individuals visually express emotions and fears that they were never able to articulate through conventional means, and give them some sense of control over these feelings.
  • Relaxation and stress relief. Chronic stress can be harmful to both mind and body. It can weaken and damage the immune system, cause insomnia and depression, and trigger a host of circulatory problems (e.g., high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and cardiac arrhythmia). When used alone or in combination with other relaxation techniques such as guided imagery, art therapy can be a potent stress reliever.
  • Symptom relief and physical rehabilitation. Art therapy can also help individuals cope with pain and promote physiological healing by identifying and working through anger and resentment issues and other emotional stresses.

See also Music therapy

Paula Ford-Martin

Further Reading

Ganim, Barbara. Art and healing: using expressive art to heal your body, mind, and spirit. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaTherapy and Treatments