Creating Your Way to Inner Peace | How Art Helps Your Mental Health

Poor mental health is an epidemic. This has been proven to me anecdotally, with countless friends and relatives and acquaintances coming out of the woodworks to share heart-wrenching and often tragic stories of mental health struggles. I’ve also read an increasing number of articles highlighting its frightening pervasiveness, especially among teens. So I’m writing this essay not just because it’s mental health awareness month, or even because of the upcoming mental-health-supporting Waunakee Project Brave event. But because it is vitally important, vitally dear to my heart.

Art is what keeps me going. I need to make time for it in my day and let it share space with my family and responsibilities. Yes, it’s my business, but more than that, it’s my happy place. It’s where I lose myself in brush strokes, little watercolor moments, and end results that bring me so much joy. Even if I get a poor night’s sleep—and that happens, because I struggle with sleep. Not in a casual way, but in a bone-deep, panic-inducing struggle that has periodically haunted my life)—when I’m painting or creating, the tiredness and anxiety for the upcoming night just…floats away. Honestly, it’s astonishing.

I don’t think I’m special in this, though. Study after study has shown that art is genuinely good for mental health, and for our brains as a whole. Not just looking at it, but doing it! Moreover, in my past year of teaching at the Lyon Road Art studio, I’ve heard comments time and again: “This is so cathartic!”, “I need this for my mental health!”, “I can’t believe how much less anxious I feel after class!” All those stressors, those niggling worries and overwhelming anxieties seem to float away for my students, too; students at ALL levels.

With this in mind, I wanted to shed some light on mental health and the hows and whys that art is oh-so beneficial. My hope is that you take some shiny little nuggets away with you and share them to keep bringing more and more awareness to such a necessary topic of conversation.

What is Mental Health Anyway?

First and foremost, “Mental Health” is different from “Mental Illness”. The terms are very commonly interchanged but while similar, have a distinct difference.

Like physical health, mental health is a state of being that can be good or bad. Mental health is our emotional and psychological well-being. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses can be associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.” While both have to do with thinking, emotions, and behavior, mental illnesses refer more to the significant changes in these.

Imagine preparing for a meeting and being anxious to present in front of your peers, the clamminess of your hands, the slight tremble as you hold your notes, and the pit in your stomach that’s aching and distracting. Don’t worry, that’s normal and it’ll go away once you’ve gotten your groove going. By the end of the presentation, you’ll think you nailed it and are back to normal.

Now imagine those feelings not going away, imagine that you get that feeling just leaving your house, going to hang out with friends, while trying to accomplish a work task, that pit in your stomach seemingly there for no reason at all. Imagine it never goes away. It becomes debilitating and isolating. These are the differences between a state (mental health) and a continued state of being (mental illness).

“More than 1 in 5 US adults live with mental illness. Over 1 in 5 youth either currently or at some point during their life have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.”

The Mental Health Stigma

The stigma around mental health issues comes from a lack of understanding and a fear of the unknown or different. Unfortunately, the media over the years has only made this worse. T.V. shows and movies depicting the crazed individual, “troubled” youth, or mental patient. It has only intensified the myths surrounding mental illness and fed into the stereotypes. It comes from the “other than” idea, not realizing just how common mental illness, let alone, mental health really is. If you really think about it, the stigma itself can be worse than the illness. If one could speak openly about what struggles they’re facing and have conversations about seeing a therapist or taking medication, it wouldn’t be so isolating.

How Creating Art Helps Your Mental Health

Neuroaesthetics is a growing field that studies the brain’s response to esthetic experiences like visual arts. It’s the study of art from a neuroscientific perspective. Though a new area of neuroscience, it’s still quite fascinating. It uses brain waves and brain imaging techniques to view the impact of creating art and the involvement of the thinking and feeling parts of the brain before, during, and after.

In a study testing cortisol levels, 75% of the test subjects had decreased cortisol levels after making art.

In another study, near infrared spectroscopy was used to test the reward perception for three different forms of art expression. They found that “all three visual self-expression tasks [coloring, doodling, and free drawing] activated the medial prefrontal cortex, indicating potential clinical applications of reward perception through art making.” In short, art makes you feel good!

One of the most straightforward explanations for art being beneficial for mental health is that it doesn’t take communication. You can express yourself without having to say the actual words that sometimes make you feel worse or are hard to formulate. After World War II, soldiers suffering from PTSD (then “shell shock”) were helped by using different art mediums to process their experiences. Speaking about traumatic experiences can be difficult for everyone from child abuse victims to veterans of war. Art can also help with the social aspects of feelings of isolation through art classes in the community.

While art can be extremely beneficial for those dealing with mental illness, trauma, or poor mental health. That doesn’t always have to be the reason. Doing creative tasks can boost confidence and resilience. There are no right or wrong answers while doing art so there’s no pressure. And a finished product can offer feelings of accomplishment. You don’t have to be in poor mental health to reap the benefits, art can help you sustain good mental health.

Overall, it decreases cortisol, depression, and anxiety while also increasing cognitive ability.

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way–things I had no words for.” - Georgia O'Keeffe

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” - Pablo Picasso

Art Therapy and How it Began

It’s said that as a people, we’ve used all forms of art to express ourselves for thousands of years. But when did it become seriously used for clinical situations?

Artist Adrian Hill was credited with the term “Art Therapy” in 1942. During this time period, tuberculosis and sanatoriums were causing suffering by the thousands. Art seemed to be a creative outlet for them to cope.

Edward Adamson continued the studies of art therapy through mental hospitals and the British Association of Art Therapists was founded in 1964. In North America, educator Margaret Naumburg and Artist Edith Kramer were the most influential in the field of art therapy and The American Art Therapy Association was founded in 1969. Other countries followed these practices and modeled themselves after the British and American associations.

The field continued to grow, making its way to child psychotherapy and treating trauma, abuse anxiety, eating disorders, and grief. Today, there are still many working to increase awareness of the benefits of not just art therapy but art itself, in hopes to keep funding for art programs in schools and other applicable situations.

What Type of Art is Best?

Whatever makes you feel good! From painting a landscape to playing the guitar to dancing and sculpting, all forms of art are beneficial for helping and maintaining mental health in kids and adults. There is just so much science-backed evidence that shows that it truly affects our brains in a positive way so why not give it a try?

Art is not just for the young or the professional artists. It can help you get out of your head for a bit, help you through a tough time, help create memories with loved ones that will last a lifetime, it just helps.

Mental illness is no joke. Take the time to check in with friends and family, even strangers from time to time. It’s only become an epidemic because of our silence and judgment. It’s treatable.

Please donate, volunteer, or spread the word about people, charities, and foundations that are working to raise awareness so we can stop the unnecessary heartache and loss for so many.

And do art!