Art Therapy as a Treatment for Depression

Painting Depression can be challenging. If you have experienced it, then you know that the most basic tasks can become excruciating and leave you feeling apathetic and drained of your willpower. Simple tasks like getting out of bed, doing the laundry, and playing with your children may be daunting. While talk therapy and medications may be helpful, they are not the only solutions to relieving symptoms. This is where art therapy comes in. Art therapy has become an effective treatment in supporting, releasing, and integrating the symptoms of depression by supporting you in exploring depression via the senses. Although art might seem less conventional, it can be just as effective as talk therapy because it utilizes the whole body experience and not just the intellect.

When Words Do Not Speak

It can be difficult to open up to a complete stranger about your deepest and darkest emotions. Sometimes, we are taught to suppress our emotions and put on a blank face, even when experiencing inner turmoil. In art therapy, words are not always necessary. A mere lump of clay or a blank canvas can be far less threatening than giving voice to painful feelings, words, or images. The simple act of a scribble on paper can likely bring light to darkness, ignite conversation, or be a release for a depressing thought. Because something cannot be heard by the human ear does not mean that nothing is being said or revealed. Art therapy supports our process when words are not enough.

The Capacity to Feel Again

In addition to creating a communication bridge between you and your therapist, art therapy can also help you come to terms with what you are actually feeling. Perhaps you have felt numb or distanced and “incapable” of feeling when depressed. Creating art is at the heart of expression and emotion, supporting your capacity to feel again. Once you have created and externalized a part of yourself as something concrete and tangible, it is easier to acknowledge that such an emotion existed in the first place. By creating, you give yourself permission and voice to that which is difficult to speak. You might feel a sense of relief or a movement of your depression once you have transferred it onto your canvas.

Creating One’s Own Happiness

Research shows that when we observe something that we believe to be beautiful, the neurotransmitter dopamine—located in one of our pleasure centers in the brain—is released. Interestingly, the brain activity observed when we look at art is actually comparable to the brain activity representing love! It’s nice to know that in addition to having created your own art, positive feelings increase.

Research proves art therapy is a beneficial method of treating depression across a wide spectrum of personalities. Many even discover a newfound passion for art and are surprised at the talent that emerges once their emotions are channeled into their artwork. Only in this unique field are therapists performing what is considered by traditional psychoanalysts to be the hardest of tasks: getting those with depression to proactively express, manage, and overcome their symptoms … with the end result being something truly beautiful.

References:

  1. Study shows art may help with depression. (2012, June 6). Retrieved June 12, 2012, from Art Therapy: http://www.arttherapyblog.com/mental-health/study-shows-art-may-help-with-depression/#.T9dlRdUth30
  2. Bar-Sela, G. (2007, Nov. 16). Art therapy improved depression and influenced fatigue levels in cancer patients on chemotherapy. Retrieved June 12, 2012, from PubMed.gov: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17351987
  3. Holm, M. (2011, Aug. 11). Art therapy for depression. Retrieved June 12, 2012, from Natural Therapy Pages: http://www.naturaltherapypages.com.au/article/art_therapy_for_depression
  4. Riley, S. (2001, July). Art therapy with adolescents. Retrieved June 12, 2012, from US National Library of Medicine : http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071468/
  5. Vann, M. (2012, April 4). 8 Unconventional ways to ease depression. Retrieved June 12, 2012, from Everyday Health: http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression-pictures/unconventional-ways-to-ease-depression.aspx#/slide-3

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Katie W

    June 19th, 2012 at 3:28 PM

    I have been on both sides of art therapy, both as an artist who encourages patrons to utilize this as a source of renewal and as a patient who has used it herself. Please don’t think of this as just some kind of child’s play, because when you draw and create this allows you to communicate from the soul, many times even deeper than what words can allow for. It has been so healing and comforting for me at many times in my own life that I would encourage anyone to give it a try.

  • Donitalovell

    June 20th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    I don’t really get the concept.
    How am I supposed to be creative when I feel like crap?

  • Christy

    August 22nd, 2016 at 9:18 AM

    Just the act of doing something different is a step in the right direction. It sends a powerful message that says you are taking action and responsibility for not tolerating this state you don’t deserve!

  • Rico

    June 20th, 2012 at 11:53 AM

    @ Donita- I would encourage you to at least give this a try. You can be creative about the pain that you are feeling just as easily as you can when you are feeling happiness. Doesn’t that face have a gace and a feeling that you want to get out? Doesn’t it deserve to be recognized and exorcised from your psyche? I am not telling you that this is the right thing for you, because we both know that this might not work across the board. But what I am telling you is don’t just curl up and allow this the control that it has. You know that you have to be stronger than that to stand up and beat this.

  • brick

    June 21st, 2012 at 4:37 AM

    don’t need to force this on someone who is not open to it. it will never be something that will help if they feel their hand is forced.

  • Kennedy

    December 1st, 2012 at 2:33 AM

    Thanks for highlighting this issue which will effecting anybody at any time of life. And also thanks for the very effective points to identifying this problem

  • Kate

    August 18th, 2013 at 11:35 AM

    While I truly appreciate this topic, I would have appreciated it more if there had been more reference to the field of art therapy. Art therapists go through specialized training to utilize art therapy methods. While I do not condone the use of art therapy techniques by non- art therapists, I believe they should have engaged in some training by an art therapist. Art is powerful. Sometimes can open up emotions that have been repressed. A trained art therapist knows how to deal with these situations. Too often I’ve seen well intentioned professionals try creative methods that end up with a client feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
    I am happy to see there was at least one citation by an art therapist, my former supervisor and later my most dear colleague, Shirley Riley. It might have been good to include some others, for example Cathy Malchoidi, who is an expert in our field and has published many books and articles on art therapy as a profession. Our field suffers from the lack of understanding of the power of art. I am a board certified Art Therapist and a licensed Marriage Family Therapist who has practiced 28 years in my field. Since the early days in my career, we have learned even more about the power of art and the neuroscience pertaining to its effectiveness. I urge those of you who choose to seek out art therapy specifically, to seek this form of therapy from an Art Therapist or Expressive Arts Therapist.
    I again thank you for sharing art therapy as a form of good therapy because it is,when delivered properly!

  • Jorden

    December 8th, 2013 at 10:27 PM

    I don’t sleep much at night due to my severe depression…and for the past week i kept having these “artistic visions” (if you will) of things i would love to draw out… i don’t have any talent for drawing…or maybe i do but i haven’t discovered it yet. This may just be the key to get rid of this. I’m willing to give it a try!

  • Karen

    March 11th, 2015 at 11:18 AM

    Thank you for your article. I hope you don’t mind me bringing this to your attention, I’m not looking through detract from this article at all.

    I work with depression in a new way – we raise our vibration( feeling/ emotion ) inline with want we want to create. Using a new technique we are able to create a new circuit which goes way beyond where we think we are at. The more we do this the easier it becomes and the quicker our life changes . We do not need to go into the story, which can be self serving , entrapping us instead of being able to release what’s holding us back. As we are utilising our right brain new realisations and understandings occur enabling us to look beyond what was to what we want in our lives. The technique is called TBP – The Balance Procedure- and it had changed my life to such an extent I became a trainer to get this out to everyone . I had clinical depression for 15 years and despite a pretty challenging year last year I didn’t even get close to being depressed as it simply wasn’t possible.
    I’ve also cleared a slipped neck disc (3rd vertebra) in 2 weeks following 2 years and hardly being able to move – much to my physio’s amazement . The beauty of this is that anyone can do this !
    I have a friend who trained in initiatic art therapy in Australia, I’ve tried this for myself and has proven an interesting experience, again no need to go into the story. It is a wonderful way just to release internal emotions especially ones you don’t understand or have long forgotten the cause . It is a quick way of releasing and bringing a sense of wholeness at the end . I’m happy to provide any more info on either of these techniques .

  • christy

    August 8th, 2015 at 3:23 PM

    How do i get more information on this new therapy?

  • Chris

    May 31st, 2015 at 3:22 PM

    As a trained and registered Initiatic Arts Therapist, I would just like to stress the important difference between using art as a tool for creative self exploration and using this modality in deeper therapeutic terms. Both have validity, but in order to fully access the benefits of process it is important to engage with a trained and registered Art Therapist who is trained to support you in a healing journey.
    Working from a sensorimotor perspective has the ability to deal with trauma that may be unable to be safely accessed through traditional talking therapies as it may have originated from a time of life where we are preverbal and do not have the language to verbaluse it anyway. Art Therapy can be a particularly powerful way to do so.

  • christy

    August 8th, 2015 at 3:28 PM

    This question of mine pertains to katie w

  • Pamela

    October 23rd, 2015 at 6:36 AM

    I am a trained artist, and licensed psychoanalyst. I have worked with many jungians, Bernie Siegel, and other professionals in the field of expressive arts therapy. I feel very comfortable using art as therapy and also conduct creative growth workshops in collage and painting. Art is a marvelous tool to access the unconscious and to learn about ourselves in a nonverbal way. I would only hold these workshops as a trained analyst because the material that may emerge quite often reveals areas that need interpretation and support. I feel that being able to hold a space for an individual to trust and be safe is the most important aspect of this work.

  • darlene h

    August 19th, 2016 at 1:19 PM

    i have done my own art therapy n will be publishing a book called through the eyes of pain the beast is revealed this book will have 72 color pencil drawings of my journey through pain and sfferring please put me in your news letter darlene a h

  • Tammy

    August 24th, 2016 at 8:09 AM

    My grandkids are currently in EMDR therapy and my 14 year old granddaughter is very crafty. With that being said, she has been diagnosed with severe PTSD, anxiety and depression. The case manager has said art therapy would be great for her but the referral has been in for 4-5 months now. I truly believe art therapy can help her. She’s not comfortable with words and music and art, I feel, are great outlets for her. How do I find art therapy providers and get her involved?

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