A Case for Art Therapy and 4 ways it Helps

 Depression can be overwhelming. It often can interfere in simple tasks, like getting out of bed or going about your daily routine. For many of us, the most readily available answers come in the form of antidepressants or therapy. Though talk therapy and psychotropics can help, other solutions can also help. 

Art therapy can be a useful tool for depression, albeit it is unconventional. I began to explore art therapy sometime last year. While most people recommend journaling, I often struggled to find the right words. This struggle was paradoxical for me because, as a writer, putting emotions on a page should be easy, yet putting my deepest fears, concerns, and depression on a page felt too vulnerable and too confusing. Instead of words, I began to draw. It felt intuitive and has helped relieve some of the symptoms of depression. 

  • Sublimation 

The reason art therapy is successful in the case of depression is that it helps transfer negative and harmful thoughts that reside in your head onto a piece of paper through a process called sublimation.   Sublimation transforms unwanted impulses into something less harmful. In the context of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, sublimation is a process that reduces anxiety created by unaccepted feelings or emotions. It is the ego’s way of appeasing the id. For example, a situation made you angry or frustrated. You can either explode in a fit of rage or internalize it, or sublimate the emotion into a physical activity such as cleaning your house or working out. Freud perceived sublimation as a mature response to stress. It is now being recognized as a possible solution to depressive episodes.

If you do not feel like vocalizing what you are feeling, then draw them. It will help clear some of the darkness.

  • Feeling

Emotional numbness is often a precursor and a constant companion of depression. You may be feeling distant from others and from yourself, but art therapy can help you bridge that gap. It helps you realize and accept the emotions that you may be feeling without drowning in them. Art is essentially a marriage of self-expression and emotion, so it is a perfect tool to help you come back to yourself. 

Additionally, it allows you to feel capable because you’ve created something. It does not matter if it does not look like Monet’s or Van Gogh’s paintings. You’ve created something! 

  • Improves Happiness

 There is not a lot of research about the effectiveness of art therapy for depressed patients. However, some research points to an increase in happiness in cancer patients. Though most of the studies were randomized and dealt with a small sample of participants, researchers found that patients demonstrated a significant decrease in distress and an increase in coping resources.  

Overall, these studies determined that art therapy practiced alone or in combination with other resources can significantly improve the patient’s emotional state.   

Similar outcomes were seen in patients with different health problems such as heart failure, obesity, and HIV/AIDS.

  • Executive Functioning

There is a plethora of research about the effect of depression on executive functioning. Executive functioning it the control room of your brain. It allows you to plan, organize, research, and basically do anything the requires cognition. Executive functioning is an umbrella term encompassing all of the processes involved in mental control and self-regulation. Though many psychologists hypothesize that depression and anxiety can lower executive functioning, it is dependant on the severity of the symptoms.  

The relationship between executive functioning and art therapy is that art therapy serves as a stress reliever. Stress often causes a decrease in executive functioning skills. 

If you feel depressed, anxious, or stressed, grab a coloring book or pick a pen and paper. I can’t promise that it will be a permanent solution to your problems, but it can help in the moments where you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. If it becomes too dark, please reach out to a health care professional for help. 

Let us know in the comments below if art therapy has worked for you!

Take Care! 


Additional Sources

Ajilchi, Bita, and Vahid Nejati. “Executive Functions in Students With Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Symptoms.” Basic and clinical neurosciencevol. 8,3 (2017): 223-232. doi:10.18869/nirp.bcn.8.3.223

Bar‐Sela, Gil, et al. “Art Therapy Improved Depression and Influenced Fatigue Levels in Cancer Patients on Chemotherapy.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 12 Mar. 2007, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/pon.1175. 

Cooper-Kahn, Joyce, and Laurie Dietzel. “What Is Executive Functioning?” What Is Executive Functioning? | LD Topics | LD OnLine, 2020, www.ldonline.org/article/29122/. 

Karin Egberg Thyme, Eva C. Sundin, Gustaf Stahlberg, Birgit Lindstrom, Hanna Eklof & Britt Wiberg (2007) THE OUTCOME OF SHORT‐TERM PSYCHODYNAMIC ART THERAPY COMPARED TO SHORT‐TERM PSYCHODYNAMIC VERBAL THERAPY FOR DEPRESSED WOMEN, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 21:3, 250-264, DOI: 10.1080/02668730701535610

link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02668730701535610

Mitchell, Contributed by Douglas. Art Therapy as a Treatment for Depression. 5 Feb. 2018, www.goodtherapy.org/blog/art-therapy-depression-expression-0619125.

Regev, Dafna, and Liat Cohen-Yatziv. “Effectiveness of Art Therapy With Adult Clients in 2018-What Progress Has Been Made?.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 9 1531. 29 Aug. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01531

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