Art as a Form of Therapy for Anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most common neurological disorders in America, affecting an estimated 40 million people every year. The disorder is defined as thinking that “involves extreme fears or worry” and has a wide variety of symptoms such as restlessness, tension, hyperventilation, rapid heartbeat, muscle weakness, fatigue, and insomnia. Anxiety causes an individual to feel helpless, irritable, fatigued and after a long period of time, the simple act of living becomes draining. Luckily, the importance of mental health has been more apparent in modern society than ever before. One form of psychotherapy that has emerged is known as “art therapy,” defined as the use of “active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” Art has proven to be a reliant form of self-expression. With art therapy, individuals with an anxiety disorder can better feel a sense of control over their emotions and find stability in their everyday lives.
Art has been utilized as a tool to understand the self for centuries. Art therapy began as a term in 1942 by artist Adrian Hill, who believed art had a healing property during his fight against tuberculosis. However, Hill’s argument remained invalid for years. Many therapists deemed art a hobby rather than a legitimate way to understand the human psyche. Psychologists even questioned the ethicality of art therapy because they believed it was an ineffective form of treatment. It wasn't until around the 1960s when art therapy became widely popularized throughout medical communities in the United States and Europe. Researchers began backing Hill’s argument with scientific research, studying the effect of art on the brain. Art therapy proved effective, and is now used as a way to expand on a patient’s mind. The practice allows therapists to understand more about a patient’s emotions, background, and personality. After years of research, studies have proven that creativity is vital to the regulation of the brain’s chemical balance.
Art therapy allows individuals to understand and reflect on one’s self-identity. The feelings that arise in anxiety are often associated with unresolved trauma that lives within the mind. In order to understand one’s emotions, it is vital to first reflect inward. Art has been proven to have positive effects on the brain: promoting empathy, brain health, and self-esteem. A study done by Professors at the Department of Behavioural Science and Health reveals that making art assists in regulating one’s emotions. The regulation of the brain’s chemical balance is due to the release of the hormone dopamine, a chemical associated with feelings of love and pleasure. Experiencing a boost in dopamine allows an individual to better their mood, gain temporary confidence, and regulate other hormones in the brain. Professor Eric Trules of USC’s Theater Department states that “self-expression and creativity are universal functions of the human experience, [...] we all have the need to express ourselves.” As a pure form of creative self-expression, art allows those with an anxiety disorder to express themselves freely. Artists can often depict endless ranges of emotions without having to speak a word, allowing artists to be more vulnerable within their work. Art has a positive impact on a person’s life, whether it be through creating or consuming art.
Furthermore, art helps those suffering from an anxiety disorder regulate the amount of stress they are exposed to. Art has the ability to portray feelings that are unable to be expressed through words. A study done by the University of Drexel found that “75 percent of the participants’ cortisol levels lowered during their 45 minutes of making art.” The lowered cortisol levels in the participants reveal how art effectively reduces anxiety-induced symptoms; utilizing art as a way to regulate an individual’s chemical balance. Cortisol is a chemical in the body that is formed in response to stress. It can increase heart rate, blood pressure, cause difficulty breathing, and create muscle tension, similar to the effects of anxiety disorder. When consistently exposed to high-stress situations, the body’s ability to regulate chemicals and hormones in the brain, such as cortisol, deteriorates. This reaction makes it feel impossible to find mental stability. On the other hand, both creating and consuming art acts as an outlet for sufferers of anxiety disorders, making it easier to reduce symptoms and better understand triggers. The ability to freely express emotions without fear makes living with anxiety more livable.
Anxiety has extreme effects on an individual’s life. While each individual faces some form of anxiety daily, those with anxiety disorders often encounter different challenges throughout their lives. However, art therapy allows some individuals with anxiety disorders to find stillness in their lives. Through art therapy, one is able to learn more about their identity through self-expression, and potentially cultivate a creative outlet.