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How Does Art Heal?
by Glenda Needs,
BA, GradDip CAT, MDisSt, GradCertNeuroSc
Head of Art Therapy Diploma, IKON SA, WA and QLD



Editor's Note from Karen Adler: This article looks at some of the research which illustrates the effectiveness of art therapy as a mental health tool.

One question I am frequently asked in my role as an art therapist and teacher is “How does art heal?”   As any art therapist will tell you, art making is a healing process, but our understanding about how this happens is not yet clear.  Some interesting studies over the past few years demonstrate that art making is not merely a distraction technique, but that it can be a significant mood regulator.

Two studies at Boston College in the United States examined this phenomenon.

In the first study completed in 2005 by Petrillo and Winner, and reported in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 42 participants were exposed to material chosen to elicit a negative mood.  These participants then completed one of two tasks. The first group were asked to create a drawing of anything that they liked, based upon how they were feeling at the time. The second group were instructed to copy shapes provided onto another sheet of paper. All participants were then asked to report on ‘valence’ (or pleasure) and ‘arousal’ at the end of the drawing phase.  These two measures of valence and arousal are well proven measures of mood, and require a person to simply mark a point where they ‘fit’ on an “Affect Grid”.

After studying the drawings and shape copying of the participants, along with their self-reported mood, it was clear that those people who drew pictures, rather than copied symbols, achieved a much happier mood. So copying symbols, or the simple task of putting pencil to paper may not be enough to generate mood change, but drawing pictures can create more positive emotion.

A second study by Dalebroux, Goldstein and Winner, published in Motivation and Emotion in 2008, used a similar method with seventy-five participants to examine how mood repair occurs with art making.  These researchers were interested in whether the power in art making came from catharsis, (expressing the negative mood), from distraction, or from positive emotional redirection.  This study is particularly interesting in that it demonstrates that distraction alone is not as effective as directing positive imagery connected to, but moving away from, the precipitating factors for the negative mood.  Freud believed art making was a means of developing positive outcomes in a fantasy form, and thus creating an internal reckoning with events. This process of drawing a positive picture as a sequel to the negative imagery fits well with Freud’s theory.

Most humans are motivated to achieve a ‘feel good’ state. We seek out methods of regulating or improving our mood.  Often this is a combination of cognitive and behavioural strategies that is done with full effort or concentration, in order to change a perceived uncomfortable state.  Many of these strategies have been previously tested by the individual and deemed an effective tool.  Some people choose venting activities, some choose distraction and others choose consciously uplifting methods. Art making allows for an individualised process that can be a venting, distracting or positively focussed activity.

We also know from earlier research that engaging in art making can reduce blood pressure, self-reported stress levels and enhance perceptions of control.  It is no surprise then that many people, at many times in life, engage in art making, at some level or another. Aside from professional artists, many other people doodle, sketch, photograph, collage or find some other means of expressing themselves artistically.  Perhaps it is the innate physiological and mood regulating qualities of art making that draws them to such pursuits.

As an art therapist, one of my most privileged experiences is in witnessing the journey of a client, from the initial visual representations of darkness and despair, to the blossoming imagery of positive outcome, even when circumstances have not yet or cannot be changed.  Creating this positive imagery frequently enhances the quality of life for the client.  It is often easy to forget that anything we wish for, we must first imagine!  Art Therapy enables a vivid imagining of a positive outcome and often gives great hope for the future.

Much of the research into art as a mental health tool has so far focussed on the outcomes of engagement, with positive results, and thus we have reports of many people’s lived experience that supports the use of Art Therapy. Despite no scientific ‘proof’, those who use art in therapy will attest to its remarkable power. Perhaps we do not yet know exactly how, but we do know that Art Heals.


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About the Author

Glenda Needs: Art Therapist, Paediatric Palliative Care, (Dept. Psych Medicine) at Women's and Children's Hospital, Adelaide, Australia; Head of Art Therapy Training, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia at IKON Institute South Australia.




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