Art as therapy

Vlada Khmel

February 26, 2024

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In the realm of mental health treatment, traditional methods such as counseling and medication have long been the cornerstone. However, a growing body of research suggests that art, in its myriad forms, can play a profound role in self-discovery and even healing. From those grappling with trauma to those seeking relief from everyday stressors, art offers an avenue for expression and introspection, transcending language barriers and unlocking emotions buried deep within. In this article, we will explore the ways in which creative practice can enrich our lives and promote overall wellbeing.

Table of contents:

  • Art as practice VS art as industry
  • Art for self-discovery
  • Art for social bonding
  • Art for mental and physical wellbeing

But let's distinguish the terms before we continue the conversation, as there's a vast difference between art as creative practice and art as industry.

Art as creative practice embodies the process of artistic expression, driven by personal exploration, experimentation, and innovation, as elucidated by 20th-century philosophers and sociologists such as Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Pierre Bourdieu. In his work "Aesthetic Theory," Adorno emphasizes the intrinsic value of creativity as a means of challenging societal norms and fostering individual autonomy. Marcuse, a famous critic of consumer society, highlights the transformative potential of creative practice in promoting authentic self-expression and moving beyond turning everything into a commodity. Similarly, Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital highlights the importance of creative autonomy in resisting the homogenizing forces of the art market.

Art as an industry, on the other hand, is a sphere that requires more of a professional approach and, therefore, has to do a lot with productivity, aims, and results. It operates within a commercial framework characterized by market forces, institutional hierarchies, and economic imperatives. As noted by scholars like John Berger and Walter Benjamin, the art world is shaped by capitalist dynamics that often prioritize profit over artistic integrity.

“All publicity works upon anxiety.
The sum of everything is money, to get money is to overcome anxiety. Alternatively the anxiety on which publicity plays is the fear that having nothing you will be nothing.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

So what we talk about when we talk about "art as therapy" is definitely the practice.

It is the act of creation that fosters introspection and self-awareness, and leads to enhanced emotional wellbeing and psychological resilience – whether through painting, or writing, or movement, or sound, or something else. Involvement in the art process cultivates a sense of mindfulness, enabling us to explore our innermost thoughts and emotions.

It is the act of creation that encourages experimentation, fosters a spirit of curiosity and exploration, and banishes the fear of mistakes. By embracing failure as an integral part of the creative process, we learn resilience and perseverance, essential qualities for personal and professional development.

It is the act of creation that provides a means of communication beyond our everyday language and narratives, allowing us to express complex ideas and sentiments that defy conventional discourse.

In essence, creative practice enriches lives, regardless of participation in the art industry. And all of its benefits are not just personal experience of random people – even if they're eminent philosophers – but the facts proven by modern cognitive science.

So, let's dive deeper into the different ways art can serve us.


Any kind of practice – from creative writing to creative knitting – offers us a profound journey of self-discovery and promotes overall wellbeing. Creative practices provide a safe outlet for expressing emotions that may be difficult to articulate verbally. Through art, we can externalize and process complex feelings, which leads to emotional relief – or, as it's used to be called in the art field, catharsis.

Creativity offers a platform for exploring one's identity and fostering self-awareness. Through artistic expression, we can uncover hidden aspects of ourselves, confront personal challenges, and gain deeper insights into their values and beliefs. You may have already encountered the practice of creating self-portraits, but it is a good illustrative example as it allows us to explore our identities, inner thoughts, and emotions. Through the process of depicting ourselves and analyzing the picture, we can gain insights into our self-perception and personal narrative*.

We can also focus on different aspects of our identity, such as values, aspirations, or strengths – and explore them specifically. It can help overcome adversity and build resilience by reclaiming a sense of agency and control over our lives, which ultimately leads to greater psychological strength and adaptability.

“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


Such an approach can be applied not only to visual arts but to any art field – be it sound, movement, photography, object creation, and, of course, writing. There's also a specific type of art-related therapy strongly intertwined with text – narrative therapy, which involves writing and storytelling as a means to explore and address personal issues.

Storytelling gave me support and meaning. I not only use it as my main working tool, a canvas on which I string what I create professionally, but also as a way of perceiving life. <...> By telling stories about myself, I have a better understanding of who I am, what I do and how it can help people. Both at the local and, I’d like to think, at more global levels. For me it’s a supportive and clarifying way of communicating with myself and the world.

– Lena Nemik, “Drawing stories: how storytelling helps me live, create and dream”

Narrative therapy is based on the concept that people's stories – or narratives – shape their perceptions of themselves and the world around them. In this type of therapy, people are encouraged to create and share their stories, which are then analyzed and explored with a trained therapist. Through this process, a person can gain a deeper understanding of their experiences and develop new perspectives on their lives. The use of text, specifically writing, is a fundamental aspect of narrative therapy, as it allows people to express themselves in a structured and meaningful way.

Even though only the writing guided by a specialist can be called therapy, any kind of writing can be therapeutic in a way of practicing self-discovery and growing self-acceptance.

This is how [through presence], in my opinion, a meeting with oneself occurs in writing – through the discovery of language, through the groping for material and the wording, through the contradictions and roughness of language that break through the text. The process of writing allows you to meet yourself where you never expected to be, in those roles you never imagined, in those words you never supposed to find. Finding it all together introduces you to yourself, returns lost or missing puzzles of understanding, and changes your knowledge of the world. It also surprises you, makes you laugh, amuses you, delights you with the unpredictable coexisting difference that suddenly appears on paper.

– Alena Palchanka, “Writing as a practice of support”

* Provided by therapists, art-based interventions work on even deeper levels and have been shown to facilitate identity reconstruction and enhance self-esteem, as we learn from the book “Creative interventions with traumatized children” by Cathy A. Malchiodi.

Social bonding

"In a world that glorifies individualism and competition, the importance of community cannot be overstated. It is through our connections with others, our willingness to support and uplift one another, that we can create a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive,"* – states writer bell hooks. And modern studies align with this statement: the feeling of connection with others, of belonging does indeed increase our level of happiness and positively affects our mental health in general.

 What does it have to do with art? It is art that often creates a non-authoritarian foundation for communities to arise, leaving at the same time the space for autonomy and one’s personal processes and goals.

Dance is beautiful in all these modes: both at  “just for yourself” level, when it brings joy in its most basic things, and also in the form of large-scale goals that may appear as dance progresses. And you can choose one of them or several, or combine in proportion that suits you the best.

There is also a possibility to integrate your other interests into the dance world and to search for new ways of intersecting different arts and types of creativity: writing music, playing instruments, drawing, making videos or photos, writing stories, creating illustrations, introducing a theatrical and performative element and many other beautiful things. All this will help enrich and expand the boundaries of creativity, and will also provide the foundation for forming a creative community based on dance.

Thus, dance can become a place for self-realization, as well as a way to find like-minded people to do something beautiful together.

– Bounce of Nature, “Dance as a form of self-exploration”

There is extensive literature discussing how the arts can play a significant evolutionary role in strengthening social connections. Studies have shown that the arts can encourage positive behaviors that benefit others, create a shared sense of accomplishment, capture collective attention and motivation, and establish a sense of community belonging.

Also, the arts serve as a means to connect people of different experiences and backgrounds. For example, activities like dance, art classes, and theater have been demonstrated to foster acceptance and understanding among dementia patients and their caregivers, people with and without disabilities, police and ex-offenders, and people across different generations.

Mental and physical wellbeing

"Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented - which is what fear and anxiety do to a person - into something whole."

– Louis Bourgeois


Both self-discovery and social bonding are themselves initial steps toward a healthier life – both mentally and physically. But there are also even more direct ways art affects our wellbeing, so let's delve into some of them:

  • Studies suggest that being involved in art can help us live healthier lives, like eating well and staying active, no matter how much money we have or our social connections.
  • Things like making and listening to music, dancing, art and visiting cultural sites can all help us manage stress better and feel less anxious in our daily lives. Getting into art can also lower the chances of developing depression, whether we're teenagers or older adults.
  • Different types of art therapy can be an extra help for people with mental illnesses, even severe ones like, for example, eating disorders, major depressive disorder, and even mild schizophrenia. Of course, along with medicine and therapy.
  • Art helps both children and adults who have gone through trauma feel less anxious and deal with what happened, making it easier to move on and not feel overwhelmed by memories or feelings. It also works with post-traumatic stress.
  • Also, involvement in art – almost any art – prevents cognitive decline or its worsening. Even engaging in cultural activities like going to the theater, concerts, museums, or exhibitions can help keep our brains strong as we age.

These are just some of art's most common positive effects on mental and physical health, just to name a few. If you wish to delve deeper into the topic, you can find more detailed information in "What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and wellbeing? A scoping review".

The material was created within the media-educational project "Support in Arts" which is a series of interviews, publications, essays, educational courses and events from representatives of the Belarusian art community and art educators who work in various fields of art (illustration, design, modern dance, visual art, fashion, modern poetry and prose, photography, music, cinema) and interpret the modern context in their practices.

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