Art and Mental Health

By Siyuan “Sierra” Zheng

Art has been a means of self-expression and creativity for thousands of years. From cave paintings to modern-day installations, art has always held a special place in human culture. More recently, researchers have begun to study the therapeutic benefits of art for individuals with mental health disorders. In this article, we will explore how art changes our brains and why art therapy improves our well-being. In the end, it will be some suggestions about how to incorporate art into our lives and some activities we can practice on our own on daily basis.

How Art Affects Our Brains

There has been more and more evidence showing that art has a profound impact on our brains. when we are engaged in art-appreciating and art-creating activities, our different brain regions get activated and hormones release is also changed in this process.

Art can have a calming effect on the brain. It was found that looking at nature scenes or landscape paintings can reduce stress and improve mood (Berman et al., 2012). A study published in the International Journal of Art Therapy found that participants who engaged in art therapy had lower levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress (Kaimal, 2016). The act of creating art can also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation. 

Our brains have the ability to change and adapt in response to our experiences, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Engaging in the arts can stimulate neuroplasticity in the brain, helping to build new neural connections and enhance cognitive function (Anonymous, 2020). Creating art can also increase the activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with cognitive control and decision-making (Bolwerk et al., 2014).

 Studies also have shown that viewing art can activate the same areas of the brain that are associated with pleasure and reward, such as the ventral striatum (Cela-Conde et al., 2013). Research has shown that engaging in creative activities such as making art can also lead to increased endorphin, a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward, release in the brain (Dunphy et al., 2019). 

Art As Therapy

 As therapeutic benefits of art have been studied extensively over the past few decades, art therapy, a form of psychotherapy that involves the use of creative material and process, start to be applied to explore emotional and psychological issues, improve mental health, and promote overall wellbeing.

Art therapy allows individuals to express themselves in a non-verbal manner, providing a safe and supportive space to explore their emotions and feelings (Bodner et al., 2018). The process of creating art can be therapeutic, as it helps individuals to externalize their inner experiences and make sense of them. According to Knill et al. (2005), art-making can serve as a “container” for overwhelming emotions, allowing individuals to gain perspective and distance from their difficulties.

Moreover, art therapy can also help individuals to develop new coping skills and increase self-esteem. Through the art-making process, individuals can learn to regulate their emotions and cope with stressors more effectively (Malchiodi, 2011). This can lead to increased confidence and a greater sense of control over their lives. In addition, art therapy can promote socialization and communication skills, particularly for individuals who struggle with verbal expression (Stuckey & Nobel, 2010).

There are studies show that art therapy can help improve emotional regulation, self-esteem, and interpersonal relationships. Art therapy can also help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as improve cognitive functioning (Kaimal, 2016).

Art for Self-Exploration and Self-Care

While working with a trained art therapist can provide specialized support and guidance, there are also several ways that we can use art and art therapy techniques on our own. One way to incorporate art into your life is to attend an art class or workshop. Many communities offer classes in painting, drawing, ceramics, and other art forms. Attending a class can provide you with a supportive environment to learn new skills and connect with others who share your interests. Another way to incorporate art into your life is to attend an art exhibition or museum. Viewing art can activate the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, leading to increased feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. Here are also several art therapy techniques you can try when you are just by yourself: 

Mindful Coloring

Coloring can be a simple and calming way to engage in creative expression. Mindful coloring involves focusing on the present moment and using the act of coloring as a form of meditation. This can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation. According to a study by Curry and Kasser (2005), coloring mandalas can reduce anxiety and increase positive affect in adults. 


Collage involves assembling images and materials to create a visual composition. This can be a helpful technique for exploring emotions and feelings, as well as for expressing creativity. According to a study by Hinz et al. (2019), collage-making can be an effective method for increasing wellbeing and decreasing negative emotions in older adults. 


Writing and drawing in a journal can be a powerful form of self-reflection and self-expression. Journaling can help individuals to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and can be a useful tool for promoting self-awareness and personal growth.

Mandala drawing

Mandala drawing involves creating circular designs that are often symmetrical and intricate. This can be a meditative practice that promotes relaxation and mindfulness. According to a study by Van der Vennet and Serice (2012), creating mandalas can increase mindfulness and reduce stress in adults.


Sculpture involves creating three-dimensional forms using various materials, such as clay, paper, or found objects. This can be a helpful technique for exploring physical sensations and for expressing emotions in a tangible form. According to a study by Blattner and Kaplan (2009), sculpting can be a useful tool for individuals with chronic pain, as it can help to decrease pain severity and increase pain acceptance.

It’s important to note that while engaging in art therapy techniques at home can be beneficial, it’s also important to seek professional help if you are struggling with mental health concerns. A trained therapist can provide specialized support and guidance that can help you to address underlying issues and promote healing and growth.



Anonymous (2020). How The Brain Is Affected By Art – Rehabilitation Medicine. ACRM. Retrieved from:

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Blattner, M., & Kaplan, F. (2009). Art therapy with chronic pain clients. Art Therapy, 26(2), 80-85.

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Bolwerk, A., Mack-Andrick, J., Lang, F. R., Dörfler, A., & Maihöfner, C. (2014). How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity. PLOS ONE, 9(7), e101035. 

Cela-Conde, C. J., García-Prieto, J., Ramasco, J. J., Mirasso, C. R., Bajo, R., Munar, E., Flexas, A., Del-Pozo, F., & Maestú, F. (2013). Dynamics of brain networks in the aesthetic appreciation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110, 10454–10461. 

Curry, N. A., & Kasser, T. (2005). Can coloring mandalas reduce anxiety? Art Therapy, 22(2), 81–85. 

Dunphy, K., Baker, F. A., Dumaresq, E., Carroll-Haskins, K., Eickholt, J., Ercole, M., Kaimal, G., Meyer, K., Sajnani, N., Shamir, O. Y., & Wosch, T. (2019). Creative Arts Interventions to Address Depression in Older Adults: A Systematic Review of Outcomes, Processes, and Mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. 

Hinz, L. D., Janke, M. C., & Britton, P. J. (2019). The effect of art making on subjective well-being in older adults: A pilot study. Art Therapy, 36(3), 137-144.

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Knill, P. J., Levine, E. G., & Levine, S. K. (2005). Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetics. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Malchiodi, C. A. (2011). Handbook of Art Therapy, Second Edition. Guilford Press.

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Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254–263.

Van Der Vennet, R., & Serice, S. (2012). Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety? A Replication Study. Art Therapy, 29(2), 87–92.