Drawing, Art Therapy, and Stress Relief (2023)

Art therapy has been widely practiced for many, many years, both formally in a therapeutic context, and informally among those who simply feel better when they draw. Decades ago, psychologist Carl Jung recommended coloring mandalas (circular designs that can contain intricate patterns or symbols) as a therapeutic intervention to promote psychological health, as he perceived that drawing mandalas had a calming effect on his patients while facilitating their processing of thoughts and emotions. Since then, art therapists have long recommended this practiceand have reported positive results, though these results were not demonstrated by research until later. While there is still room for many more studies on mandalas and drawing, in general, several studies have already shown us some important information about the effectiveness of using art for stress relief. Here are some of the most telling findings.

Creating Art Can Minimize Anxiety and Lift Mood

One study from researchers Chloe Bell and Steven Robbins randomly assigned 50 adults ages 30 and under to either create artwork or sort a series of art prints. Before either group was asked to do anything related to art, they were asked to engage in the mild stressor of creating a 10-item to-do list of their “most pressing concerns and worries,” which was designed to create a mildly negative mood and mild anxiety that the activities could then potentially minimize. Then, they were given assessments of their moods and anxiety levels. Finally, one group was provided paper, colored pencils, charcoal pencils, and oil pastels, as well as 20 minutes to create art. The second group was given a stack of 60 art prints and the instructions to sort them “based on their pictorial content” for the next 20 minutes. Both of these activities would expose the subjects to art, but only the first group was involved in the creative expression.

After three measures of negative mood and anxiety were collected before and after each intervention, the results showed that the group who created artwork experienced significantly greater reductions in negative mood and anxiety compared with the art-sorting group, showing that the mere act of creating art can significantly minimize negative mood and anxiety, some of the negative effects of stress. (If you’re worried about the subjects being deliberately stressed by thinking about their most pressing concerns for the sake of the study, researchers asked them all to create a list of their 10 most positive or favorite memories before they left, which can be quite helpful in itself.)

Creating Mandalas Can Minimize Symptoms of Trauma

Another study by researchers Patti Henderson and David Rosen from Texas A&M University and Nathan Mascaro from Emory University School of Medicine was conducted with those suffering from PTSD divided 36 subjects into two groups: those who drew mandalas for 20 minutes at a time for three days in a row, and those who were instructed to draw an object for the same period of time.

Those who had drawn mandalas showed a decrease in symptoms of trauma at a one-month follow-up, whereas those who drew an object did not. (It should be noted that other potential differences in the groups were studied, but this was the only difference that was statistically significant; some of these expected changes, such as differences in anxiety levels among those who drew mandalas and those who did not, have been found in similar studies with less traumatized subjects, so it is possible that more mild states of stress can be more easily affected by drawing.)

What Happens to You After a Traumatic Experience

It should be noted that, in this study, participants were asked to create their own mandalas using symbols that represented their feelings or emotions related to their trauma as part of the design rather than coloring in patterned mandalas that had been previously created. Because of this, there might be some added element of catharsis here. However, the act of coloring mandalas is similar in that the choice of colors and the calming act of coloring itself are the same.

Coloring Pictures Can Relieve Anxiety — No Drawing Skills Necessary

A final relevant study was conducted by researchers Renee van der Vennet and Susan Serice. In the study, they measured 50 subjects’ anxiety levels, induced anxiety in subjects by asking them to write about a past fearful incident for four minutes, assessed their anxiety levels again, and then divided them into three groups: one that colored mandalas, one that colored a plaid design, and one that drew freely on blank paper. Each group drew for 20 minutes using six colored pencils.

The practice of coloring mandala drawings has been shown to reduce anxiety levels significantly.

(Video) Relieving Stress with Art Therapy

The researchers measured anxiety levels both before and after the drawing activities and found significant reductions in stress in the coloring groups. They observed that those in the free-drawing condition seemed to pause to think about what to draw, and some appeared to struggle with the open-endedness of the drawing assignment; perhaps there were too many choices with free drawing, where mandala drawing allowed for more concentration, focus, and present-mindedness. (And sometimes having too many choices can be stressful in itself, even if the choices are relatively insignificant.)

This study is particularly relevant for those who aren’t entirely comfortable with their artistic abilities, but enjoy doodling and coloring (which is a large group!), and lends support for the stress relief coloring books that have become increasingly popular among adults.

Final Thoughts

This is all great news for those wanting to relieve anxiety and stressand lift their mood. If you’ve ever wondered if taking a few minutes to draw a picture can actually help with stress, now you know that it can. (Perhaps that’s why many of us instinctively doodle on the sides of our to-do lists, or why teens often draw pictures in class.) If you’ve wondered if a stress relief coloring book is worth a try (as I had), it appears that they can indeed be helpful, as the mandalas used in the third study were very similar to those in mandala coloring books sold in popular bookstores. Simply creating something you find to be beautiful, or that expresses your emotions can be helpful, so let your inner child loose and get out those colored pencils! Try some art activities that can relieve stress.

All About Acute Stress

4 Sources

(Video) Art Exercise for Stress Relief

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Carsley D, Heath N. Effectiveness of mindfulness-based colouring for test anxiety in adolescents.Sch Psychol Int. 2018;39(3):251-272. doi:10.1177/0143034318773523

  2. Bell, Chloe E.; Robbins, Steven J.Effect of art production on negative mood: A randomized, controlled trial. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. 2007;v24 (2), 71-75.

  3. Henderson P, Rosen D, Mascaro N. Empirical study on the healing nature of mandalas.Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. 2007;1(3):148-154. doi:10.1037/1931-3896.1.3.148

  4. van der Vennet R, Serice S. Can coloring mandalas reduce anxiety? A replication study.Art Therapy. 2012;29(2):87-92. doi:10.1080/07421656.2012.680047

Drawing, Art Therapy, and Stress Relief (1)

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.

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FAQs

How can drawing help relieve stress? ›

When you want to find a way to take a break from distressing thoughts, drawing offers a way to focus your attention on something calming. Sketching, doodling, or coloring provides a way to ground yourself and get some peace from racing thoughts.

Why is drawing so therapeutic? ›

Studies suggest that art therapy can be very valuable in treating issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even some phobias. It is a great way to express your emotions without words, process complex feelings and find relief.

Why is drawing good for mental health? ›

Drawing enhances your creativity and activates your brain

Drawing actively opens your brain to creative thinking. Developing a sense of imagination helps stimulate the brain, creating new pathways allowing you to process new ideas and engage in creative problem-solving.

Is drawing used for therapy? ›

The resort to drawings is a component of what is called art therapy: a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication. [1] In the context of a therapy, drawings become tools used by psychotherapists to install communication and a medium to address emotional issues.

What kind of therapy is drawing? ›

Art Therapy may be used in treatments for a variety of conditions, and any of these treatments may include a variety of artistic media, though painting and drawing remain most common. Some of the conditions commonly treated by Art Therapy include: Anxiety. Depression.

What are two benefits to art therapy? ›

It encourages the development of healthy coping strategies. Therapy can facilitate insight, empathy, and acceptance of other's life challenges. It is capable of promoting problem-solving skills. Art therapy is capable of exploring, managing, and providing insight into traumatic experiences.

Is drawing a mental skill? ›

Drawing is a powerful tool of communication. It helps build self-understanding and can boost mental health. But our current focus on productivity, outcomes and “talent” has us thinking about it the wrong way. Too many believe the myth of “I can't draw”, when in fact it's a skill built through practice.

What kind of art helps mental health? ›

Expressive arts, such as visual arts, movement, drama, music, and writing, foster deep personal growth and community development. Expressive art therapy allows users to laugh, let go, and relax, which helps decrease depression, anxiety, and stress.

What does drawing do to the brain? ›

Drawing increases many of the cognitive functions that researches typically label as the 'creative' and 'right brained' activities. Intuition increases. Produces positive brain chemistry like Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine. Your brain stem can actually get thicker.

Does art therapy actually work? ›

There's growing evidence that art therapy helps conditions that relate to mood, such as anxiety and depression, trauma, low self-esteem, and similar disorders.

What are 3 uses of art therapy? ›

Art therapy has been shown to benefit people of all ages. Research indicates art therapy can improve communication and concentration and can help reduce feelings of isolation. This type of therapy has also been shown to lead to increases in self-esteem, confidence, and self-awareness.

How long does art therapy take to be effective? ›

Research indicates that it takes between 8 to 15 weeks for art therapy to work on patients who are dealing with trauma. Art therapy results in a substantial reduction of trauma symptoms. It is also associated with a reduction in stress among clients with depression.

What skills do you gain from drawing? ›

All of these aspects are intertwined, as kids gain vital skills through practice with tools such as crayons, pencils, markers, and paintbrushes.
  • Motor Skills. ...
  • Creativity. ...
  • Cognitive Development. ...
  • Planning Skills. ...
  • Eye-Hand Coordination. ...
  • Visual Perception. ...
  • Attention Span. ...
  • Healthy Emotional Release and Expression.
29 Sept 2022

Is drawing good for anxiety? ›

The short answer is yes. Drawing, painting, and other forms of creativity can be used as stress relievers for most people who try them. Studies have shown that most people who try art as a form of therapy or stress relief have experienced significant reductions in their cortisol levels when doing so.

How Does drawing make you feel? ›

Drawing empowers me with confidence.

It reminds me that I am in control of my life, my thoughts, and my feelings. It gives me a sense of accomplishment for having made something. It makes me feel more secure with who I am.

What are the three therapy drawing techniques? ›

Techniques used in art therapy can include: Collage. Coloring. Doodling and scribbling.

Can art therapy help with anxiety? ›

Art therapy works to heal anxiety through helping us feel a sense of calm, express ourselves, and become more self-aware. As part of a comprehensive treatment plan, art therapy may be a truly transformative treatment option for those who seek healing from anxiety disorders.

What should I draw during art therapy? ›

These activities will ask you to face some unpleasant aspects of life, but with the goal of overcoming them.
  • Draw a place where you feel safe. ...
  • Create a mini-diorama. ...
  • Create a collage of your worries. ...
  • Draw something that scares you. ...
  • Turn your illness into art. ...
  • Paint a loss in your life. ...
  • Make art that is ephemeral.

Is drawing a talent or practice? ›

Drawing is a Skill.

A skill is something, that can be learned through practice and learning it the right way. Drawing is a Skill, that you can learn no matter if you are talented or not. But it will take a little more time to learn.

Is drawing a talent or ability? ›

At the end of the term, I had to come to the conclusion that yes, drawing is a learned skill for some and natural talent for others. It wasn't until years later, when I took a child development course that pointed out that all very young children love to draw and paint.

What does psychology say about drawing? ›

The size of the drawing

If your drawing takes up approximately 50% of the paper, it indicates a certain balance between extroversion and introversion. On the other hand, if your drawing takes up the entire drawing surface, it speaks of an excess of self-esteem, and even certain aggressiveness.

How does art heal the mind? ›

Q: How does art contribute to healing? A: Art is healing because it forces you to forge a connection between your mind and your body. Unlike exercise, which works your body, or meditation, which clears your mind, art-making accesses both mind and body to promote healing.

How does art make you happy? ›

The scans show that viewing art triggered a surge of dopamine, the happy chemical, into the brain, which results in feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.

What five ways can art be used as a therapy? ›

In addition to coloring books, I've come up with 5 ways to use art as therapy.
  • Make abstract art to express emotions. ...
  • Use representational art to express gratitude for the world around you. ...
  • Use process art to calm the mind. ...
  • Use creativity and imagination to gain contact with your inner child.
2 Dec 2015

Is drawing a form of intelligence? ›

Although drawing is not commonly thought of as a manifestation of intelligence, it is in fact an intellectual exercise that allows an individual to use visualization as a way to understand and project concepts— apprehension.

Is drawing mentally draining? ›

Drawing is tiring because it requires intense levels of focused concentration. Each drawing is a puzzle. It involves extreme hand and eye coordination, advanced spatial awareness, and the ability to see and render fine detail. The process exhausts the mind.

Does drawing help memory? ›

It's long been known that drawing something helps a person remember it. A new study shows that drawing is superior to activities such as reading or writing because it forces the person to process information in multiple ways: visually, kinesthetically, and semantically.

How does art give therapeutic feeling? ›

Art is an inherently enjoyable experience, which can be a powerful tool in a therapy setting. It can give you the opportunity to express your inner thoughts, while helping you to better understand and make sense of your emotions and your mental health.

Why do psychologists ask you to draw? ›

The house-tree-person test (HTP) is a projective test intended to measure different aspects of personality. Test takers are asked to draw a house, a tree, and a person. The interpretation of these drawings is used to create a picture of the person's cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

How do you express your mental health through art? ›

Drawing pictures, making art, or taking photographs instead of using words can help you express how you feel. What's more, the simple act of taking part in a creative endeavour may also help to reduce your feelings of anxiety or depression.

What happens to your brain when you draw? ›

Drawing increases many of the cognitive functions that researches typically label as the 'creative' and 'right brained' activities. Intuition increases. Produces positive brain chemistry like Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine. Your brain stem can actually get thicker.

Is drawing a mental health? ›

There is a positive connection between art and mental health—artistic activities such as sculpting, painting, or drawing are known to lower stress levels and promote mental calmness. Creating art takes your mind off of your everyday life and provides a relaxing distraction.

What are 3 reasons people draw? ›

Why I Draw
  • Drawing helps me manage my emotions. ...
  • Drawing helps me move from Closed Mode to Open Mode. ...
  • Drawing helps me discover, reflect on, and express myself. ...
  • Drawing helps me reduce stress and calms my anxiety. ...
  • Drawing helps me focus on what's important. ...
  • Drawing helps me be more present.

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