Art as a Natural Healer

Image from the National Museum of African Art.

By Helen Young
If you’ve been thinking of applying to the betterArts Residency Program, motivated by the chance to complete a series of paintings, create a collection of sculptures, or complete that book you have always wanted to write, chances are, you are heeding an inner calling that equates creativity with fulfillment. The creation of art, however, wields many more positive effects than those which are immediately apparent. In this post, we present a few of the most interesting findings regarding the therapeutic effects of art.

  • Art battles stress: Anxiety and depression are the most common mental conditions in the US and both are strongly linked to stress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety affects 18% of the US population and depression, and nearly half of those diagnosed with depression also suffer from anxiety. While these disorders affect the population as a whole, they can be particularly debilitating for those suffering from additional conditions such as eating disorders or those recovering from challenging issues such as substance abuse addiction. These conditions take their toll on body and mind and often, the first step to healing is addressing the conditions that cause chronic stress. Studies have shown that art reduces symptoms of distress, improves one’s perception of body image and promotes psychological healthThe creation of art alongside therapists has even been found to improve quality of life among women undergoing treatment for  breast cancer, by reducing their levels of distress. In other studies, art therapy has been found to reduce measurable levels of stress hormone, cortisol.
  • Art boosts self-confidence: As artists learn and begin to perfect different techniques, their self-esteem grows exponentially. Creation is a teacher that shows the artists the value of dedication, of taking risks and of reaching for goals. When we achieve what we set out to or we complete a long and arduous project, it makes us feel like the sky is truly the limit in terms of what we can achieve in other areas of our life.
  • Art boosts brain function: Fascinating studies carried out with older adults suffering from dementia and other related conditions, show the power of art to stimulate cognitive functioning.
  • Art can help us deal with pain: Many illnesses such as cancer, cause considerable pain and art is an excellent natural way to deal with this pain. Studies carried out on children suffering from cancer have shown that the act of creation helps them deal better with their pain.
  • Art can help people recover from addiction: Across the nation, art therapy is being used successfully to help those recovering from substance abuse addiction and alcoholism, face their sometimes ambivalent attitude towards giving up the source of their addiction. Through paintings, collages and sculptures, recovering addicts can express all the things that attract them to their source of addiction, but also identify the many positive things they can gain by quitting.
  • Art encourages mindfulness: It is no wonder that practices like yoga and Tai Chi are picking up in popularity in all corners of the world. In this day and age of avid Internet usage, disconnection from Nature and pressure to succeed in the material sense, we have discarded a useful way of being which keeps harmful stress at bay: mindfulness. For keen artists, the act of creation is akin to meditation; it is easy to completely disconnect from the problems that plague us and concentrate on the work we are creating, sometimes for hours on end. In this sense, art is the ideal mindful activity for those who are not attracted by meditation itself.
  • Art promotes communication: Artists often their creation to express a difficult time in their past or a dilemma they are facing in current life. Many can find it difficult to express their emotions directly, yet find it surprisingly easy to do through their art. This is because of the uniquely subjective element of the language of art; an artist can be completely open in their work yet the message received can be a completely different one; therefore, privacy can be maintained to the extent the artists wishes.
  • Art can help heal trauma: Art therapy expert, Judith Rubin, tells of how painting helped her overcome the death of a good friend when she was just 17. Her friend had died in a senseless accident and the day after the funeral, she says she felt compelled to head for the woods to paint. The work she created, she said, was “a symbolic replacement for he who has lost, a mute, tangible, testament. The doing of it afforded tremendous relief. It did not take away the hurt and the ache, but it did help in releasing some of the rage, and in giving form to a multiplicity of feelings and wishes.” It wasn’t until many years, she says, that she realized that the reason why art is so successful at taming fear and pain, is that “giving form to the feared object brings it under your own symbolic control.” This simple truth underlies much of the immense power of art and art therapy.
To learn more about the betterArts Residency Program, click here.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.