Art Therapy: Draw it Out

Art is an outlet for the human experience, in sickness as well as health. It challenges and excites us, and it can ease our pain. Since the emergence of psychotherapy in the 19th century, the field has exploded. Therapeutic approaches are now used to address the psychological elements of a suite of conditions- everything from cancer to claustrophobia2– and an impressive range of therapy types have been developed. Therapists now harness many activities to aid the healing process, including creating art.

Being creative can be a therapy in its own right (even without a structured psychotherapeutic context), and has demonstrated benefits for both the sick and the healthy5. Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process to facilitate patient self-exploration and improve his/her wellbeing. The process has two parts: the creation of art, and a verbalization of the experience, which is usually done as a patient narrative, though this is often aided by questions from a therapist1. There is no standard treatment1 and art therapy can incorporate any form of artistic expression, such as music, writing, drawing, and even digital media3.

art therapy
A picture is worth a thousand words.

Exercises can be direct, addressing the patient’s current situation overtly, or indirect, focusing on the patient’s inner life without referencing their current situation. Art therapy promotes self-expression and self-awareness, and gives the patient an opportunity to think symbolically about their condition, which promotes creativity and problem-solving skills. Communicating about their experience and artwork increases the patient’s understanding and integration of their experience. These benefits can transfer to and enhance the patient’s daily life1.

Art therapy is broadly considered a beneficial technique, and has rarely been associated with negative effects, such as exacerbating symptoms4. It helps with depression and rehabilitation1 generally, and reduces anxiety in breast cancer patients2 . It offers an alternative and to pharmacological treatments (i.e. medications)1, and is cost effective4. Perhaps most importantly, it allows patients to externalize their pain and confront it face-to-face, thereby seeing themselves more clearly. It offers patients a space to recast their suffering and call it by a new name: art.


  1. Blomdahl, C, AB Gunnarsson, S Guregård, & A Björkland. (2013). A realist review of art therapy for clients with depression. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40: 322-330.
  1. Boehm, K, H Cramer, T Staroszynski, & T Ostermann. (2014). Arts therapies for anxiety, depression, and quality of life for breast cancer patients: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2014: 1-9.
  1. Choe, S. (2014). An exploration of the qualities and features of art apps for art therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41: 145-154.
  1. Crawford, C, C Lee, J Bingham, & Active Self-Care Therapies for Pain (PACT) Working Group. (2014). Sensory art therapies for the self-management of chronic pain symptoms. Pain Medicine, 15:S66-S75.
  1. Rankanen, M. (2014). Clients’ positive and negative experiences of experiential art therapy group process. The Arts in Pscyhotherapy, 41: 193-204.

Image source: “The Scream of Nature” by Edvard Munch,

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Suzi Claflin

I am a postdoctoral fellow studying chronic disease epidemiology.

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