Note: The following suggestions are from someone with personal experience. They are not, however, meant to be a substitute for art therapy with a licensed professional.
Despite the wonder that is the human body, it can break. When a ligament is stretched, doctors advise us to rest until it heals. We attend physical therapy to regain strength and return to full functionality. Likewise, it stands to reason that the same is true when the mind is injured.
Rest and self-care are essential to safe recovery. However, therapy—specifically art therapy—can help return us and our minds to full strength and health. As we safely exercise our injured joints and muscles, we can do the same for our minds.
As with physical therapy, there are different art exercises for different patients and needs. One person’s art therapy may not be effective for someone else. There are endless artistic directions that we can follow. In fact, there are several various categories of art and art therapy. Each of these helps provide healing to those burdened.
With that in mind, here are five categories of art therapy, with examples for each.
Therapeutic drawing can be a powerful healing tool. It allows for non-linear expression and the realization of hidden thoughts and feelings. Additionally, drawing something activates our reward centers for creating something. And if we can integrate therapeutic means into that reward sensation, then our minds and bodies will reap the benefits.
Drawing therapy can include illustrating traumatic feelings. It can also be simply scribbling and finding patterns in the lines. The finished product is important, but the act of drawing itself can relieve agitation and quiet minds.
Some valuable exercises include:
- Color in a drawing: Start simple and find a pre-made drawing that speaks to you. It can include motivational words and images, or it can be a pleasant scene that makes you happy. Trace the lines as you color. Use shades that have meaning in conjunction with your emotions. Here are some templates to get you started. The goal of coloring is to relax your mind and body. Drift away while you appreciate the growing collection of colors and shades before you.
- Draw portraits of your past and present selves: Divide a paper in half. One half will be your past self; the other will be your present self. Draw what you looked like (or what you think you looked like). Then, draw who you are today. Compare both images, and study how you have grown. This visual representation can help showcase our growth. Despite the challenges we’ve faced, we are still here, and the changes in ourselves are evidence of that.
- Draw your fears as monsters: Often, unknown and abstract topics like stress or anxiety gain power through their ephemeral definitions. Try drawing these fears as specific monsters. Bringing these emotions to life can help gain control over them. And, personalized representation of your worries and stresses can help highlight the source of your feelings.
Drawing therapy can take many forms. Doodling, drawing shapes, or coloring can place the mind in a restful state. The goal is to appreciate what you have created.
Like drawing, crafting items creates a concrete product. This gives us pleasure and feelings of accomplishment. Likewise, when these items are made for a specific reason, they can become lasting reminders of our strength and value.
Crafting can also combine various art forms. This can help you express the feelings that have become internalized. Here are three specific exercises that can serve many needs:
- Make a stuffed animal: By creating a stuffed animal, you’re placing thought in what matters to you. From the design to the textures and colors, each step of the process revolves around you. Making a stuffed animal allows you to explore what makes you happy—and why! As well, you’ll have a new and helpful companion at the end of the process.
- Make an intention object: An intention object is a personalized reminder of your worth, value, and strength. It can be anything from a shiny stone to a stick found while hiking. Choose something with meaning and decorate it accordingly. Use soothing colors and fabrics. Consider using charms that bolster specific feelings, such as luck or safety.
- Create your emblem: Let your creativity shine and create a symbol of yourself. Create a sigil that represents your dreams, strengths, and other personality features that make you, you. Whenever you feel yourself start to falter, take a look at your emblem and recall your self-value.
Crafting and creativity help us process our emotions, including those otherwise hidden by our minds. Crafting can soothe, and it can allow us to realize the positive aspects of ourselves that may be difficult to see from the inside.
Collaging requires thought and patience, which can help us process emotions, not to mention creating a representation of what we’re feeling. Graphing our personalities and feelings as collages can also help us realize how we view ourselves. This allows us to explore our emotions in other mediums, like words or colors.
Collaging is also one of the more accessible arts to start with. Grab some paper, glue, and old magazines, and get started. Here are a few pertinent examples:
- Make a self-portrait word collage: Start by taking a picture of yourself (or draw a self-portrait). Next, cut out words and images from various media that represent you and your thoughts. Paste them around your portrait, or overlay them inside the portrait to further explore your feelings. The goal of this collage is to exemplify the positive aspects of yourself through the lens of artistic beauty.
- Create a color collage: A color collage can be a versatile tool. Start by assigning colors to your emotions. Then, find pictures, images, and even words that match that color. You can have a collage for each feeling (red for anger, blue for sadness, yellow for joy, and so on). Or, create a daily journal notating your weekly emotions through colors. These have been shown to help map and gain control over your emotions.
- Collage your stressors: Like a color collage, a stress collage can help showcase your top stressors. Use clippings to find words and images that describe your stress. As you create your collage, allow yourself to experience your feelings as you secure them to the page. The goal is to help you gain control over your stressors through identification and management.
Collages can be a rewarding exercise when words seem to fail us. By finding images and phrases already made by others, we can assign labels to the unknowns that keep us up at night. In other words, collages allow us to build genuine expressions of ourselves when we can’t form the descriptions.
Like coloring, painting calls upon the power of color and design. It can be completely abstract or uniquely focused. No matter the method, therapeutic painting resonates with our emotions.
For those who already have a talent for painting, use this opportunity to explore your emotions. Try new techniques, or paint scenes out of your comfort zone. Use symbolism to gain deeper insight into your thoughts. Expression is the key to self-discovery, and growth is made easier when we reach a little farther.
Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Paint to music: On its own, music is a powerful tool for self-healing and understanding. Combine this with painting to unleash the truth behind your feelings. If you’re able, find the songs that resonate with every mood—the good and the bad. Let your art illustrate the depths of your emotion.
- Paint your moods: Similar to a color collage, elaborate your moods by painting them. Consider using a base color for each emotion, and using different shades for the similar emotions you feel. If happiness is green, perhaps elation is emerald, and contentment is seafoam. You can also include other aspects, such as images that pertain to your emotions. In the end, your paintings should help you become more intimate with your specific emotions.
- Paint your safe space: Sometimes, we need to get away from the world for a moment. Painting your safe space can create a lasting image of calm. As well, the process itself can help bring peace and safety as you fade away from real-world stresses. Don’t stop with one painting, either. Explore your safe space from many angles and interpretations. Fill an entire room with manifestations of your ideal safe place.
Painting is an excellent art form that anyone can enjoy. Color itself is important to help manifest our emotions. And creating with those colors can help us work through our more difficult burdens.
Journaling has long been a form of self-therapy. Writing down one’s thoughts can help us make sense of the insensible. Indeed, daily writing has been shown to help the writer process the emotions of traumatic events.
Whether free writing or strict adherence to journaling, writing provides many benefits to our mental health. It allows us to express ourselves with plain language. Writing also allows us to create a structure of improvement. This includes schedules to keep us on track or even positive affirmations around the house.
Here are three different exercises that offer unique therapeutic advantages:
- The unsent postcard exercise: Expressing our feelings to others can be difficult, and even more so when we are in conflict with that person. Our emotions are still valid, though, and should be expressed. This unsent postcard template allows you to communicate with that person without confrontation. Even without sending the postcard, the act of writing your feelings creates an outlet for the negative emotions you may be carrying.
- Send feelings away with balloons: The balloon message exercise can also rid yourself of unwanted negative energy. Write (or draw, paint, or create) a message expressing your negative feelings and emotions. Attach it to a balloon and cast it into the wind, ridding yourself of said negativity. Creating a physical representation of your adverse emotions can help you process the emotion. Likewise, do the same with positive feelings to help spread your joy.
- Journal your experiences: A daily journal is a great way to explore your emotions. Document your experiences and how each made you feel. Daily writing can help you discover patterns or similarities in situations. This will allow you to avoid negative situations and embrace the positive.
Art therapy is a great strategy to help understand the processes of the brain. Art allows us to process emotions in safe and constructive settings. By creating physical representations of our feelings, we can better understand why we feel the way we do. When words can’t communicate our feelings, we can continue to express ourselves through art.
Anyone can use art therapy exercises. Incorporate any of these methods within your daily schedule. The act alone will help set some time aside for you and your healing. We all need time to recharge and grow. Spending that time working on art is as rejuvenating as it is engaging.
If you are interested in exploring art therapy with the help and support of a professional, you can locate art therapists using this tool.
Great post on how creative expression can have a healing effect on our vulnerable minds. Something I myself can personally confirm the effect of and which I myself have used for the benefit of others with a mental illness / disorders. Sincerely, Lars from Denmark
I am so grateful to discover art therapy in my journey when I have had no words. It has helped me adjust to how my brain processes differently and communicate what I have no words to say.
Thank you, that was all so informative. As an artist myself it puts into place for me the good feelings and even the joy of doing my own art 💗