art therapy

What is It?

How Does It Work?

What You Can Expect

Health Benefits

How To Choose a Practitioner



Evidence Based Rating Scale


What Is It?


Art therapy uses the creation or viewing of art to help people discover and express their feelings. Unlike art for art's sake, which focuses on the finished piece, art therapy focuses on the process of creation itself. Moreover, the activity is undertaken primarily for its healing benefits rather than for the creative end result; in fact, the piece of artwork may never be shown to anyone outside the therapy session--and it is sometimes never finished.


Art therapists believe that the act of making a piece of art triggers internal activity that contributes to physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Therapists employ various art modalities including drawing, painting, sculpture, and other media. For people who are not able or ready to create art, going to an art museum or looking through art books can also be helpful: simply viewing art can refresh the spirit and promotes relaxation.


While people have always expressed their feelings through art, art therapy as a profession has existed only since the 1930s. Among the fields that now frequently incorporate art therapy as part of the treatment process are psychology, in which art is used to uncover hidden emotions;  physical therapy, which uses art to help build self-confidence and aid rehabilitation; and occupational therapy, which may use it to augment manual skills.


Child psychologists and family therapists often use art therapy because children have a hard time putting feelings into words. Art therapy has also become a vital part of the activities offered in many nursing homes, long-term-care facilities, and hospices. (1)


How Does It Work?


Art therapy helps healing in various ways. First, the aesthetic quality of the work produced can lift a person's mood, boost self-awareness, and improve self-esteem. Second, research shows that physiological functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, slow when people are deeply involved in an activity they enjoy. The focused attention required is much like a meditative state. In addition, making art also provides an opportunity for someone to exercise their eyes and hands, improve eye-hand coordination, and stimulate neurological pathways between the brain and the hands.


Because art therapy uses a language other than words, it is often employed in treating patients with physical or emotional illnesses who have difficulty talking about their fears and hopes, or about their anger and other strong emotions. The creation of art helps people get in touch with thoughts and feelings that are often hidden from the conscious mind.


What You Can Expect


An art therapist usually works in conjunction with a primary-care physician or as part of a medical team in a hospital setting. Art therapy sessions can take place one-on-one or in small groups. Adult therapy sessions usually last from one to two hours; sessions with children and the elderly may be shorter. The art therapist generally provides the materials, a comfortable place to work, and some technical advice. Peaceful background music often adds to the atmosphere. Time for planning, executing, reflecting on, and discussing the work is included in the session.


Before beginning a course of therapy, the art therapist may ask patients to explain why they wish to undertake art therapy and help them define their goals. Sessions can then be tailored to fit individual expectations and needs. One session or a weekend workshop may be all that is needed. Conversely, patients may find that meeting with the art therapist on a regular basis for six months or longer is more helpful.


Health Benefits


The mere act of creating art has intrinsic benefits, according to art therapists. By promoting feelings of achievement, the creation process automatically boosts self-esteem and self-confidence. Creative expression is often the antidote to depression.


Stress reduction is also a significant benefit. At least one source suggests repressing strong feelings can lead to a buildup of stress, and that stress can intensify pain and intensify the symptoms of various diseases. (2) Because art therapy helps people access their unconscious mind and release pent-up emotions, it has been found to be very useful in treating those suffering from stress and stress-related ailments.


Art therapy is also used as treatment for behavioral problems, and often serves as an ancillary treatment to psychotherapy. It is frequently part of inpatient psychological treatment programs, including those for drug and alcohol abuse. (3)


Patients recovering from trauma or serious injury often find art therapy particularly beneficial, as do people with chronic illnesses, such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease. In addition to these uses, art therapy can also help people with a serious or terminal illness create a tangible record of their thoughts and emotions.


Specifically, art therapy may benefit:


Alzheimer's Disease. Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is a progressive, degenerative, and fatal brain disorder. It is the most common form of dementia, which is a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities that interferes with daily life. In one study, thirty-nine patients with mild AD were randomly assigned to either art therapy or learning therapy involving simple arithmetic once a week for twelve weeks. At the end of the study, the group who received art therapy showed significant improvements in vitality and quality of life compared to the learning therapy group. (4)


Cancer. In one small study of patients with terminal cancer who were housed in a hospice center, the patients received an average of three art therapy sessions. During therapy, patients expressed their feelings through visual fine arts appreciation and hands-on painting. Seventy percent of the patients described their emotional state as much or very much relaxed during therapy, and fifty-three percent felt much or very much better physically. The mean score of patient's artistic expression was significantly higher after therapy than before therapy. (5)  Additionally, a 2011 literature review of studies found art therapy is being used by adults with cancer to manage treatment-related symptoms and to facilitate the psychological changes associated with the loss, change, and uncertainty of cancer survivorship. (6)


Depression. Anxiety and depression are commonly associated with advanced heart failure. Art therapy may benefit these patients. One small study was performed on twenty patients with advanced heart failure. Ten patients received art therapy and ten received no therapy once a week for six weeks. Art therapy was found to improve adherence to medical therapy and quality of life and was recommended as a component of therapy for heart disease. (7) Art therapy was also found to benefit older adults with mild to moderate depression. (8)


How To Choose a Practitioner


Art therapists work both independently and as part of treatment teams that may include a primary-care practitioner, psychiatrist or psychologist, and rehabilitation counselor. Patients may wish to interview a number of art therapists to choose one with whom they feel comfortable sharing emotional insights.


The art therapist should be a trained artist with additional art therapy credentials. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) recommends that art therapists meet the following requirements:


·        A bachelor's degree with at least 15 semester credits in studio art and 12 semester credits in psychology.


·        A master's degree in art therapy.


·        One year of post-graduate work under the supervision of a registered art therapist.


The Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB), an independent organization, grants credentials to therapists who have completed graduate education and a post-graduate internship. Art therapists must pass a written examination administered by the ATCB to become board-certified.




·        Since powerful thoughts and feelings can surface during art therapy, it is essential that the therapist be a qualified practitioner.


·        It is important that the practitioner provides good ventilation when working with materials such as turpentine and mineral spirits.




1.  American Art Therapy Association. Available at Accessed April 15, 2012.
2. Henry JP. Stress, salt and hypertension. Soc Sci Med. 1988;26(3):293-302.
3. Horay, Brian J. Moving Towards Gray: Art Therapy and Ambivalence in Substance Abuse Treatment. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, v23 n1 p14-22 2006.
4. Hattori H, Hattori C, Hokao C, Mizushima K, Mase T. Controlled study on the cognitive and psychological effect of coloring and drawing in mild Alzheimer's disease patients. Geriatr Gerontol Int. 2011 Oct;11(4):431-7.
5. Lin MH, Moh SL, Kuo YC, Wu PY, Lin CL, Tsai MH, Chen TJ, Hwang SJ. Art therapy for terminal cancer patients in a hospice palliative care unit in Taiwan. Palliat Support Care. 2012 Mar;10(1):51-7.
6. Wood MJ, Molassiotis A, Payne S. What research evidence is there for the use of art therapy in the management of symptoms in adults with cancer? A systematic review. Psychooncology. 2011 Feb;20(2):135-45.
7. Sela N, Baruch N, Assali A, Vaturi M, Battler A, Ben Gal T. The influence of medical art therapy on quality of life and compliance of medical treatment of patients with advanced heart failure. Harefuah. 2011 Feb;150(2):79-83, 209.
8. McCaffrey R. The effect of healing gardens and art therapy on older adults with mild to moderate depression. Holist Nurs Pract. 2007 Mar-Apr;21(2):79-84.


Evidence Based Rating Scale

The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies and what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice into a visual and easy to interpret format. This tool is meant to simplify the information on supplements and therapies that demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions.






Alzheimer's Disease (AD)


One small study indicates art therapy significantly improved vitality and quality of life in patients with mild AD. (4)

Studies and literature review indicate art therapy facilitates cancer treatment-related symptoms and psychological changes in adults with cancer. (5, 6)
Small studies showed improvement in quality of life and adherence to medication in patients with advanced heart failure and improvement in depression symptoms in older adults. (7, 8)

Date Published: 04/19/2005
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