Does Art Therapy Really Work? We Asked a Neuropsychologist

Paint brushes

Pexels / Deeana Garcia

Art therapy is a creative way to tackle anxiety, but does it really work? We live in a society where low-level (and sometimes full-on) stress and anxiety is a daily given. From the constant sensory overload of social media, an ever-increasing inbox and the pressure of an almost always-on social life, we're more stressed and anxious than ever. And those niggling feelings are hard to tame. According to the American Psychiatric Association, almost 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder (yes, you read that number right), while around 40 percent of the population admitted to feeling more anxious in 2018 compared with the year prior.

Art therapy has been used since the mid 20th century as a way for people to use creative exercises like painting and drawing to enhance feelings of mental well-being and to promote healing. Of course, you can sign-up for a pricey pottery or jewelry-making class, but finding something that you can do easily at home is a great way to get going too. And while art therapy may sound a bit out-there, it is, in fact, a legitimate form of therapy. Anxiety UK tells Byrdie that "most arts and crafts, such as knitting or baking or similar activities, are mindfulness activities which are a proven way of helping with stress, anxiety and/or anxiety-based depression."

Intrigued? To find out more about art therapy and how you can reap the benefits, we called on Dr. Sanam Hafeez to get us up to speed, so keep reading.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Sanam Hafeez is an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. She is also a member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Review Board.

Byrdie: Could you tell us about art therapy and whether or not it actually works?

Dr. Sanam Hafeez: Art therapy (AT) as a treatment option for anxiety is regularly employed in clinical practice, but scientific evidence for its effectiveness is lacking since this intervention has hardly been studied. Art therapy has been used for about 50 years.

Byrdie: Can artistic pursuits help everyone dealing with stress or does it only suit people who are naturally artistic? 

SH: People who are artistically inclined will likely be more readily open to it. For those who are not, there might be some initial resistance. Nothing about art therapy is “results” oriented or has any element of competition or evaluation. Once those are not “born artists” realize this, they tend to be more open. Art Therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress. Therefore, it is suited to almost alone open to the process.

Byrdie: Why does art therapy help people feel relaxed?

SH: Results of a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association found that just 45 minutes of creative activity can reduce your stress, regardless of artistic experience or talent. It fosters relaxation because when you are focused on creating, it takes your mind off things, even if you are just doodling and not painting like Picasso. It can put you into a “state of flow” which is a near meditative state. It calms the nervous system, encourages self-expression and self- awareness. It also gives me time to themselves in a relaxing environment.

When you are focused on creating, it takes your mind off things... It can put you into a 'state of flow' which is a near meditative state.

Byrdie: When looking for an art-based hobby, have some things been proven to help more than others? 

SH: Aside from art, there are similar types of (non-sporting) activities that can have the same effect as art therapy, such as knitting or crocheting, writing, gardening, playing a musical instrument, and volunteering with animals.

The most important thing is to choose something that you enjoy so that you will be engrossed in the activity and stick with it. If your mind is focused on an activity, there is much less space for your brain to be anxious.

If you have tried painting as a means of art therapy and didn’t like it, don’t give up. The next time, try pottery, collaging, digital art, textiles, or perhaps jewelry making. There are many different types of art. Find the one that best suits your interest and diverts your anxiety.

Want to try art therapy at home? Check out these artistic kits to help you get started.

Cross stitch kit
Dimensions 'I Can't Adult Today' Counted Cross Stitch Kit for Beginners $12
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Not only will this cross stitch kit help you get into a meditative state, but you'll want to hang this on your wall.

Kintsugi Kit
Humade Kintsugi Kit $29 $28
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Inspired by old Japanese tradition, this Kintsugi kit enables you to fix broken ceramic, marble, glass, and plastic objects with gold. Proving that cracks can be beautiful.

Macrame at Home book
Natalie Ranae Macramé at Home $13
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Add a touch of boho to your home by creating a macramé plant hanger, cushion cover or wall art.

Paint kit
Free Hand Acrylic Paint Set with Canvas $18
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Try your hand at painting with this beginner acrylic set that comes with a canvas, just in case you want to display your creations.

Candle making kit
Lucerne DIY Candle Making Kit $26
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With eco soy wax, essential oils, and chic holders, this is the ultimate candle making kit.

Next up, human rewilding is the 2020 way to do a digital detox.

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