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The Science Behind Art Therapy

With the advent of tools such as coloring books for adults, there are now far more proven benefits to art therapy than just relaxation.

For more than 60 years now in the United States, art therapy as a psychological and medical tool has been continuously developed as a way to promote general health and mental well-being and even aid in healing specific conditions. It’s a form of expressive psychotherapy that is often used by professionals to treat a variety of mental and emotional conditions, such as cancer, PTSD, emotional abuse, and bipolar disorder.

The idea that creative expression can make a powerful contribution to the healing process has been embraced in many different cultures. Creative art therapy has long been recognized as a legitimate intervention to specific use cases. But why does it work and what is the science behind it?

Art Therapy in Colorado

Colorado has long been known for its bustling art and photography scene. Susan Jacobsen, a Colorado Springs art therapist, who had an exhibition last year at the Cottonwood Center for the Arts, says, “Art therapy [is] really personal” and “mainly about expressing yourself.” Her work illustrates her struggle with infertility and the loss of her stillborn son Henry.

“What art therapy does really well is: You pull all of those pieces and put them on a piece of paper, and now they are integrated on the same piece of paper, and it’s out there instead of in [your mind]. Then you can verbalize around it,” Jacobsen adds.

But Why Does It Work?

A study by a number of University of Colorado health professionals titled “Integrating Creative Art Therapy with Palliative Care” (published in the Journal of Pain and Symptoms Management) concluded that creative art therapies help patients better manage pain and anxiety. The research, in which 366 patients participated in self-selected art therapy sessions, revealed that the method also improves patients’ well-being. Another study with similar positive results found that art therapy, similar to how Jacobsen puts it, creates an inner dialogue and reawakens memories that help the process of dealing with anxiety and pain.

Helps Prevent Memory Loss

Recent groundbreaking research published in the journal Trials uncovered that art psychotherapy has significantly contributed to the cognitive improvement of people suffering from dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Scientists have begun shifting their efforts to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s in the “at risk” stage of people with MCI. Also, people with dementia seem to retain art-related skills despite their memory loss.

Although previous research has led to some believing that delaying or preventing Alzheimer’s is unthinkable, this study on elderly patients with MCI has shown significant positive results. Art therapies, including a music reminiscence activity with patients, have resulted in increased activity in neurocognitive domains, psychological well-being, and good telomere length (a biological marker for cellular aging).

Helps Trauma Recovery

As mentioned earlier, art therapy can also aid in managing trauma and trauma-like conditions. A 2017 University of Cambridge research study on veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed that art therapy interventions helped them communicate with their peers, explore difficult and previously inaccessible feelings, and create a calming atmosphere, which most of them deeply needed.

The study also points out the benefit of group art therapy as a way to normalize veterans’ mental health problems and increase their ability to share experiences—a process that plays an important part in helping PTSD patients recover. One of the primary neuroscientific bases behind art therapy in trauma management is that traumatic sensorimotor memories are stored nonverbally in the right hemisphere of the brain and, therefore, cannot be easily articulated declaratively. Art therapy engages creativity and emotions, which, in turn, gives the person access to and control in interpreting these memories.

Access to Art Therapy

Although art therapy is becoming a more widely used form of therapeutic intervention, the American Art Therapy Association says that it has only been professionally regulated in seven states. The rest of the country—and even rural areas within those states—have little to no access to professional art therapists.

However, there is hope. A 2018 study from Colorado State University suggests that art therapy can also be accessible to rural areas through telemedicine. The study implies that the use of electronic, online communication in deploying art therapy can improve its accessibility to the public.

Diversifying Applications

Colorado Springs native and maze artist Warren Stokes brings art therapy to his classroom. As a new substitute teacher for Denver Public Schools, Stokes uses his mazes and coloring art to aid children in relieving stress and pressure from school work. “Art has saved my life, and I wanted to figure out a way to give back,” says Stokes, who uploads his work to his blogs for other teachers to use as reference.

A systematic review published by Molecular Diversity Preservation International via the National Institutes of Health found that creative art therapy interventions at work can help with stress management as well. In relation to this, more and more businesses are now recognizing the value of employing people with an understanding of how psychology influences the ability for professionals to learn in the workplace. Maryville University suggests that these newly recognized psychological connections between a person’s capacity for learning success and the state of their mental well-being is now helping drive business forward. Art therapy in the workplace comes in various forms too, with music, dance, and movement therapy as the most popular modalities. These types of dynamic therapy sessions can dramatically help relieve stress in the workplace and give professionals that added bit of respite they need.