Using Art to Process Emotions

illustration of a lady with a rainbow on top

The famous painter Georgia O'Keeffe once said, "I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for." Art has a direct connection to your soul. Have you ever looked at a stunning photograph or watched a beautifully choreographed dance and felt a rush of emotions? Most people find themselves reacting in an almost visceral way to various types of creative expression.

For centuries scientists and philosophers have been interested in the effect art has on cognition and physical health. Scientists are still not entirely sure why humans have such strong emotional reactions to the different forms of art. However, therapists find the connection useful, and many have incorporated artistic mediums like painting, sculpture, and music into treatment programs for individuals struggling with substance use disorder (SUD). The Journal of Addictions Nursing published research concluding that "art and music therapies are being used as complements to other psychosocial treatments, which may ultimately improve patient outcomes by offering more robust treatment options."

What Are Common Art Forms Used in Therapy? 

Artistic expression has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. According to a paper published in the Journal of Anatomy, "art, in its many forms, is [practiced] by almost all human cultures and can be regarded as one of the defining characteristics of the human species." Some of the earliest known pieces of art date back to approximately 700,000 years ago. The drive to express ideas and emotions through creativity has been around for longer than civilization. 

Each art form engages your mind and body in slightly different ways. For example, research in the Journal of Anatomy "found that viewing beautiful vs. ugly paintings differentially involved the orbito-frontal cortex and motor cortex and that different categories of paintings yielded distinct patterns of brain activation." The type of art you use will impact your brain's physical response. Some of the more common creative outlets for therapy and hobbyist artists include: 

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Composing
  • Woodworking
  • Sculpting
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Animation

How Does Art Connect to Emotions? 

A research paper published by PLOS One reported that "artistic creative activities have been shown to modulate emotions (rapidly-changing reactions to events in the external or internal environment), influence moods (more [generalized], less intense states of feeling lasting longer periods), and affect mental health." Many individuals in therapy for substance use disorder have difficulties with emotion processing and regulation. Art can help them learn how to identify specific emotions and connect them with behaviors. 

Benefits of Art Therapy

The vast majority of hobbyists use art for self-expression, relaxation and because it is something they genuinely enjoy without expecting to gain any specific mental or emotional relief. However, individuals in therapy for substance use or mental health disorders may find themselves gravitating towards art as a way to get relief from intense or complex emotions. Art therapy is an excellent way to explore this medium without any pressure or expectations. 

Every form of art can provide some emotional release, but art therapy incorporates standardized techniques and therapeutic practices that make it helpful for individuals with issues regulating emotions. Some treatment centers like White House Recovery and Detox offer art therapy to enhance the outcome of more traditional psychotherapy.

Sharing Your Art With Others 

Art is a beautiful thing that you can share with others to create a sense of intimacy and shared experience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience describes creativity as an inherently social activity. "Art in all of its manifestations (visual art, music, literature, dance, theater, and more) is an important feature of human societies because it serves as a cohesive symbolic communicative system conveying cultural norms, history, ideas, emotions, esthetics, and so on." You can share your thoughts and feelings with others through any artistic medium that you find helpful. A few ways you can share your art include:

  • Posting it on social media
  • Displaying it at your home
  • Giving it as a gift to friends and family
  • Participating in a local art exchange

Incorporating Art Into Your Self-Care Routine 

Self-care is essential during treatment and continuing care. Finding a way to make your daily routine and environment healthy and comfortable will decrease stress and lower the risk of relapse. Using art to better connect with and express emotions can increase self-confidence and self-awareness. A few ways you can incorporate art into your self-care routine include: 

  • Attending art therapy
  • Taking art classes
  • Learning new crafts and artforms
  • Joining artistic groups
  • Taking part in art events
  • Visiting art museums

Art is a part of the human experience. We all have certain types of creativity that we enjoy taking part in or observing. Science has shown that there is a direct link between art and emotional responses. You do not even have to be trained or proficient in any particular form of art in order for it to improve your mood. The health benefits of using art as a form of self-expression have been proven over decades of research. You can use painting, dancing, writing, or other art to connect with others and enjoy a sense of belonging. At White House Recovery and Detox, we offer art therapy and music therapy in addition to more traditional talk therapy. We understand the many ways that creative expression can be used to improve your mental and physical health. Learn more about the alternative therapies we offer by calling us today at (800) 510-5393.