Around 2015 or so, adult colouring books arrived on the Amazon bestseller list, and haven’t left since. The response was polarizing: Kate Middleton was reportedly a fan at one point, but Quartz dubbed them America’s “cry for help.” Forbes called them the “dark horse of publishing” that year. Regardless of how you feel about colouring books for those past grade school, studies have proven that they do help some de-stress at the end of the day, highlighting an oft-forgotten means of stress relief: creating art.
For most people, our creative lives end with our formal arts education in high school. “What happens is people grow up and they think they’re not creative, and so they cut themselves off from this really powerful way of expressing themselves,” says Dr. Christianne Strang, PhD, ATR-BC, CEDCAT-S, the president of the American Art Therapy Association and an assistant professor in the behavioral neuroscience program at the University of Alabama. “Anything that someone can do that can be an entre into connecting with their sense of creativity can be really powerful.”
“My daughter will say, ‘playing the violin helps me feel good. When I play the violin when I’m upset, I see better,’” describes Girija Kaimal, EdD, MA, ATR-BC and assistant professor in the creative therapies department at Drexel University. When engaging in the arts — whether that’s writing, drawing, music, or dance — you channel your emotions in a constructive way. This is called sublimation. “[When sublimating,] you channel what might be a destructive or difficult emotion into something that’s adaptive and positive,” Dr. Kaimal says. “You don’t go and punch someone, but you might punch a piece of clay, and make something out of it, so you redirect what might be difficult emotion into something positive and adaptive.”
That said, sublimating, or using art as a form of self-care, can only take you so far. Dr. Kaimal likes to use a home improvement analogy: you can cover a scuff on the wall with a framed picture, or change a lightbulb to brighten up a dark room, but once you start having electrical or plumbing problems, it’s time to call a professional.
That’s where art therapy can be helpful.
“You can use art for self-care, you can connect with creativity, you can do your own art therapeutically, but that is distinct from art therapy that is done in relation to a professional art therapist,” Dr. Strang explains.
Art therapy dates back to World War I, during which artists, Red Cross volunteers, and occupational therapists worked with soldiers to treat PTSD. During World War II, the practice caught on at Walter Reed Hospital. The term “art therapy” was coined in the early 1940s, in the book Art Versus Illness by Adrian Hill, who himself was an artist working in a sanitorium. In the 1960s, the first formal training program for art therapists was founded at Drexel’s Hahnemann University Hospital. In the decades since, art therapy has evolved into standalone mental health profession with masters-level training and board certification.
“The idea is that we engage mind, body, and spirit,” says Dr. Strang, of formal art therapy. “It goes beyond verbalization, beyond just talking about people and things, so people engage in a different way to meet treatment goals.” Art therapy is about using creativity and art-making to help people understand themselves, find a voice, and “communicate things for which there are no words,” she says. It’s distinct from using art therapeutically, because art therapists are looking to meet very specific treatment goals in relation to issues such as addiction, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. “You can use art therapeutically for yourself, but the principles of art therapy are specifically about the therapeutic relationship and working with an art therapist.” In some U.S. states, there’s legislation in place limiting the practice of art therapy to people who are credentialed art therapists. During appointments, art therapists work with patients on a series of art assessments which are “not where we sit down and analyze someone’s artwork,” Dr. Strang says, but rather, where they “have someone do artwork, talk to them, work with it, and use that to establish their treatment goal.”
But whether you’re using art as a form of self-care or signing up for an art therapy session, there are a few reasons why art can help you work through emotions and relieve stress. During a 2016 study, Dr. Kaimal found that 45 minutes of creative activity significantly reduced the cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in three-quarters of the study participants. Creating art also produces a sense of pride and accomplishment that’s not necessarily a consequence of skill. “Skill has nothing to do with the benefits of self-expression,” Dr. Kaimal says. “Skill is not a prerequisite. Studies by Jamie Pannebaker and Joshua Smythe have shown that it’s the authenticity of the expression and not the skill.”
Finding a medium that you enjoy is key to making art as a form of self-care — drawing is different from painting, which is different from sculpting, creating jewellery, or making a collage. “Colouring is the most obvious one, where people use it to zone out and relax to decrease anxiety. Some people doodle, and other people are very comfortable making art on their own, and they make art for the sake of making art, which is in itself a form of self-care,” Dr. Strang says. “People really respond to pain and loss with creativity. Perhaps the best example of that is the AIDS quilt.”
Colouring books might not seem creative, but you need to make creative decisions every time you work with them — whether that’s deciding whether to fill them in with pencil, marker, or watercolour, or deciding how to engage with the lines. Some people even cut out the shapes to make something three-dimensional. “It’s an entry point into the arts,” Dr. Kaimal says.
So if you’re suffering from mild stress or just feel more anxious than normal, colouring, painting, or crafting at home might be a good place to find some relief. However, if you think you’re suffering from a more acute form of stress or anxiety, and it’s negatively impacting your life, you might want to seek out a licensed art therapist. Either way, we think your inner child will thank you.