WHAT IS Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a method of using nonverbal language to express emotions, especially the ones that are difficult to articulate. Art therapy creates a therapeutic space that enables the clients to hold a unique dialogue with themselves through the art. A special connection will develop between the art, the client and the therapist.

In the self-awareness and healing journey, art therapy facilitates an important creative process of expressing and discovering self. Various researches show that art therapy is effective in exploring emotions, reducing anxiety and depression, increasing self-esteem and coping through numerous psychological conditions; such as ADHD, dementia, autism and PTSD (Malchiodi, 1997). Clients are encouraged to connect with themselves through different art materials, such as paints, crayons, clay, markers, pastels and pencil, as a form of creative expression. It gives room for clients to not only express their emotions but also to understand their feelings through art. Art therapy increases awareness of self, personal development, coping skills and enhance cognitive function.



One of the main benefits of art therapy includes allowing one to articulate memories and emotions in images that are difficult or impossible to express through words. Gerteisen states that, “trauma memories are not solely cognitive, and sensory experience such as art therapy not only provides a vehicle for expression but also a way to externalize those traumatic memories” (Gerteisen, 2008). Art therapy empowers clients to gain inner strength by giving them a way to externalize thoughts and feelings through image thereby uncovering unconscious traumatic memories in a controlled, timely manner. Having a way to look at these images outside of the self allows one to do so more safely thereby assisting in improving emotion regulation. Clients will then have opportunities to explore new insights and challenge unhelpful cognitions. It also has its effect on increasing relaxation and decreasing anxiety and stress. “The relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling the emotion that is affected by stress” (Brooks, 2014.)


Art therapy in a group format has the benefit of creating a positive community. Art-making becomes a less stressful way to communicate, simply because it is not depended solely upon verbalization. Clients’ are guided to focus on the process more than the final product while enjoying making art together. “Making art in the presence of others is an expression of hope” (Moon, 2010, p8.) When one has experienced trauma, tragedy, disease, and depression in life, art therapists play an essential role in bringing hope to ones’ life. In an art therapy group, clients can begin to see that they can bring a positive influence to others’ lives as well. When clients share their creativity through art, they begin to bring faith into the presence of the community. They shift their focus to bringing hope and joy to the surrounding community instead of their fear, disease and trauma. Within a hopeful environment, where people have had similar life experiences, loneliness decreases and a desire for a communal space and interpersonal relationships is created. Art therapy stirs up a positive curiosity and desire in human interactions, connections, relationships and collaborations.




Art therapy is beneficial for children, especially those with behavioural issues, depression, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, social isolation, grief/ loss and PTSD. “Children exposed to unpredictable violence or repeated abandonment often learn to cope with threatening events and emotions by restricting their processing of what is happening around them” (Cook, 2005), which means that cognitively, distressed children are less able to comprehend and process situations around them. Art therapy facilitates psychosocial support, which increases relaxation and reduces anxiety. Children are learning how to express verbally and are doubly disadvantaged when asked to describe difficult thoughts and feelings. Art is a natural way for children to express themselves. They can be empowered by expressing their emotions through their chosen art materials and subject. Being able to decide and work independently will increase children’s self-esteem, ability to express emotions creatively and to be autonomous.


Shirley Riley, a registered art therapist, states that adolescents enter a stage where there is a need to express their opinion of their world through imagery. Many of their images come before an understanding of the visualization. Art therapy becomes extremely helpful for a lot of adolescents because at this stage, many are forbidden to express certain emotions verbally. “The images provided boundaries and structure within which they could vent their emotions” (Riley, 2001, p.56). Art therapy becomes a powerful channel for adolescents to process through internal pain, exploring their inner world and identity.


Art therapy becomes particularly beneficial for adults suffering from stress, depression, lack of self-esteem, addiction, mental health issues, medical conditions and traumas or unresolved conflicts. Art therapy provides a safe space for adults to release hidden emotions and freely explore their self-healing and discovery journey. It also reduces anxiety symptoms and permits the opportunity to explore and reconnect with their creative selves.


Art therapy helps ageing clients to develop healthy ageing through creative expression. Many ageing clients may focus on their diseases, sensory-motor difficulties, isolation, loneliness, death and depression; therefore, it is crucial to facilitate them in developing healthy ageing, guiding them in seeing hope in growing old. “Healthy ageing, therefore, can be understood to mean having a vision of hope about growing old and an overall positive state of mind as well as minimizing and managing physical age-related declines” (Sunhee, p.159, 2013). The concept of embracing and adapting to their current stage of life is significant at this stage in life. In making art, clients are encouraged to embrace their creative selves and create a sense of hope and enjoyment at their current stage.


People often wonder how art therapy works and what a session looks like. Whether group or individual art therapy, the centre of a session is to explore the inner world of the client. In the process of a session, clients are encouraged to believe that they are creative and can express their inner experiences through art. The client’s perceptions, imaginations and emotions become the focus of a session. Please see below for a short example of a gentle directive in a session.


Clients get ten seconds to scribble with a pencil or black marker on a piece of paper. Clients are asked to close their eyes and scribble in whatever way they like. Afterwards, clients are invited to take time to observe their scribble and use the same medium or other mediums to fill in and embellish your scribble with colour or patterns, depending on what you see. Clients are welcomed to fill in more than one object.