Health benefits of art therapy

Did you know your perception of colour may vary from the person sitting next to you simply because of you gender, age, or culture? The psychology of colour is an interesting subject of study as it bears witness to the powerful capacity of the brain to interpret visual cues like colour and art, and communicate different messages depending on who you are and where you came from.

When it comes to incorporating colour and art into therapeutic treatment, the benefits are surprising. For millennia, images and visual symbols have helped those who couldn’t otherwise communicate due to language or physical barriers find their voice. Art therapy in its most clinical model is the process by which a patient who is having trouble verbalizing their emotions and thoughts can visualize and then draw or paint what they are feeling.

Some research has shown that art therapy can provide insight to both patients as well as their therapists about any issues they are trying to weed through. Art as therapy, however, can take on an even broader form, illuminating other health benefits that everything from colouring to painting, sculpting, even designing can have:

Stress relief

Psychology Today shared a 2016 pilot study which measured stress biomarkers in participants before and after they took part in 45 minutes of active art making. What did the study find? By measuring cortisol (stress hormone) levels prior to and after the art making activity, researchers discovered that 75% of participants had lowered cortisol levels after completing the “art therapy.” Additional studies add to a growing body of qualitative evidence that shows art making may help positively alter a person’s perception of stress, as well as enhance other physiological factors like immune response.

Improved focus

While not considered traditional art therapy, adult colouring which has boomed in popularity in recent years, is believed to offer beneficial effects to the brain when it comes to attentiveness and concentration. Experts believe that adult colouring both relaxes the brain by offering a low-risk, predictable yet creative activity for them to do, as well as increases attention. Colouring requires concentration and helps to take people out of their own mind, diffusing chaotic thought processes and rumination. A 2006 study of female cancer patients found that mindfulness-based art therapy resulted in a significant decrease in feelings of distress as well.

Boosted self-confidence

When daily sessions of conventional therapy were incorporated into a rehabilitation program for stroke patients, one 2015 study revealed that patients experienced improved self-confidence as well as better cognitive functioning and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Art therapy, whether it’s colouring or painting, redefines the patient as “artist” making them more aware of their own power and ability to create something beautiful and expressive. Boosts in self-esteem can translate into greater self-reliance, and better overall moods.

Preventing cognitive decline

For older adults at higher risk of cognitive decline and degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia, art therapy can also help reinforce strong brain health. Much cognitive decline is due to damaged neurons or neural pathways which make it difficult for brain cells to communicate. Memory loss, trouble decision-making, disorientation … these types of symptoms can be debilitating. Researchers are finding that building up a reserve of strong groups of brain cells and synapses can help offset some of the decline you see with diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Motor skills

Art therapy as an activity where you use your hands to create something (i.e. colouring, painting, or sculpting) requires the use of fine motor skills which exercise the brain and help strengthen your neuroprotective reserve. Combined with low-impact fitness activities like pedal exercising or dancing, art therapy can be a critical component to staving off age-related neurological diseases.