Art Therapy: A Path to Self-Discovery, Expression, and Long-Term Healing

Art therapy can be used to help individuals sustain emotional wellness and can even help manage the symptoms of physically debilitating illnesses, especially when practised as part of an integrative treatment program.

The practice of art therapy is not new. The concept of art therapy has been around for decades, dating back to 1942 when Adrian Hill first coined the term.

The arts have long played a vital role in human history. 

For instance, Banksy, an England-based street artist known for creating artistic masterpieces in unsuspecting places, is renowned for his random creative expressions and, just as fascinating, his anonymity. 

Why some artists choose to be anonymous may help us understand just how cathartic this form of self-expression can be.

Art, in fact, any form of creativity, is not always about becoming famous or being the next Monet or Picasso. Often, it’s about emotional release, expression, and getting things out of your system through imagination, creativity, and self-expression without the limitations of external judgement or ridicule.

Hence, artists like Banksy operate under a pseudonym, likely to help maintain their privacy while getting to express themselves in whatever way feels right at the time.

However, art therapy goes far deeper than the desire to express oneself, although self-expression is crucial for mental health and well-being and should never be underestimated.

The field of art therapy was established on the idea that the creative process has the potential to help people. (The Art of the True Self: Using Art Therapy as a Means of Self-Discovery, Alison M Kilpo, 2013.)

Art therapy allows individuals to develop a more robust sense of self in a world where we are increasingly conditioned to think, act, and behave like everyone else.

Losing oneself in the process of creating art can be immensely therapeutic, helping people to get a clearer understanding of who they are, their beliefs, dreams, ideals, and goals without boundaries or limitations.

Through art therapy, a person uses art as a tool to process their past, present, and future and embrace the journey life has taken them on to become who they are today. (The Art of the True Self: Using Art Therapy as a Means of Self-Discovery, Alison M Kilpo, 2013.)

This article explores art therapy and how it can help set people on the path to self-discovery, expression, and long-term healing.

Let’s dive in!

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is an established form of psychotherapy facilitated by experienced art therapists.

It utilises art as a foundation of expression, alongside talking with an art therapist. Art therapy can help with the following:

  • Reduces psychological distress
  • Improves self-confidence and awareness 
  • Increases self-compassion, which promotes insight and a sense of self-control and self-worth
  • Helps individuals articulate and process complex thoughts and emotions through art-making

Art therapy involves using specific materials, including pens, crayons, pencils, paint, chalk, collage, or clay, which allow individuals to utilise the creative process through self-expression, helping them to develop healthy coping skills and gain personal insight.

Typically, the techniques used in art therapy include:

  • Sculpting
  • Finger painting
  • Scribbling
  • Colouring
  • Drawing
  • Using clay
  • Collaging
Childrens aPaintings in Art Class

Under the supportive guidance of an art therapist, a person may choose to draw, paint, and use art materials to express or communicate their feelings and emotions. 

A therapist may introduce specific themes or ideas to help encourage people to express themselves or address particular challenges or issues they might face. 

Any themes used during art therapy may be discussed after the session, either in groups or individually, where the therapist facilitates a discussion about what your artwork may mean to you and why you chose a specific material or colour. 

There are no rights or wrongs here, and often, your artwork may have no hidden meanings or translations; the point is, there is no judgement either way.

Moreover, art therapy has various benefits and may help individuals to:

  • Manage stress better
  • Boost their confidence
  • Explore emotions
  • Be more self-aware
  • Develop their social skills

Art therapy aims to help you look at your challenges or problems in a new way, understand yourself better, express thoughts or feelings you ordinarily find difficult to talk about, and explore painful feelings and experiences in a safe and supportive environment.

Although art therapy has been around for decades, it only became part of an official treatment program in the 1940s.

Back then, mental health professionals noted some of the benefits of art therapy on their clients, observing how drawing and other forms of artistic expression helped them recover, ultimately leading many professionals using art as part of an endorsed treatment program.

Art therapy: a path to self-discovery, expression, and long-term healing

As well as being beneficial for our mental health and physical well-being, art therapy can also help with self-discovery, expression, and long-term healing.

Some argue that humans are born to be creative. Thus, awakening our ‘inner artist’ can encourage us to be more honest with ourselves, allowing us to be aligned with who we truly are.

The art-making process is creative, potentially inspiring many emotions and memories that may help us better understand ourselves.

Self-discovery and expression

male therapist with patients doing art therapy

Depending on the type of emotions it evokes, art therapy can fuel our motivation to explore ourselves on a much more profound level, helping us to continue discovering the multiple layers and dimensions within, paving the way for us to cultivate more creative forms of self-expression and discovery.

When we go on a nature walk or colour a feeling wheel, we can make space for new ideas and a deeper connection to the self, allowing us to gain a more vibrant, coherent perspective on challenges or problems we might face.

Art therapy allows for the exploration of the self and the discovery of the individual – of being true to oneself. 

It can help individuals to understand who they are by exploring their life journeys and seeking truths. (The Art of the True Self: Using Art Therapy as a Means of Self-Discovery, Alison M Kilpo, 2013.)

Long-term healing

Art therapy allows individuals to use their imagination positively, helping them to express themselves more freely and feel more comfortable discussing painful feelings or emotions they would typically avoid or suppress.

Releasing our emotions can be an immensely cathartic experience and can help discharge any past trauma that may have been stored on a cellular level.

For those who struggle to articulate themselves through words, art therapy gives them a voice and an outlet to channel all their anger, hurt, fear, and anxiety without any repercussions.

Art therapy allows people to begin expressing complex feelings and emotions they might not initially be able to put into words.

Individuals can communicate and express themselves through their creations, building a stronger connection to themselves and the therapist, and leading to long-term resilience and healing.

Who should try art therapy?

People of all ages and stages of life can practise art therapy. 

However, much research has shown how art therapy can significantly benefit those impacted by challenging life experiences, such as cultural or societal difficulties, health issues, and disability.

Art therapy can be effective in various situations and contexts, including the following:

  • Children or adults recovering from a traumatic event or experience
  • People with chronic stress
  • People living with brain injuries or other debilitating injury
  • Children experiencing behavioural issues or social problems at home or school
  • Children with mental health issues or learning disabilities
  • Individuals living with chronic health conditions

Many people benefit from art therapy. Whether your goal is to manage the symptoms of a physical or mental health condition, alleviate stress, or have fun, anyone can enrol in this therapy.

The different types of creative therapies

Art therapy can be confusing since many often associate it with only painting or drawing. 

While these activities are involved, various creative arts can help aid self-discovery, expression, and long-term healing, including:

Drama therapy

Drama therapy involves various drama and performance activities that may benefit your emotional well-being and long-term recovery.

You may share stories, act out scenes, invent characters, and write scripts. You don’t need any acting experience, just the willingness to participate! 

Drama therapy helps individuals safely express or resolve challenging thoughts and feelings and explore mental health issues that may affect or hold them back.

Dance movement therapy

Multiethnic group of friends having fun dancing together outdoor during summer vacations

Dance movement therapy involves using dance and body movement to encourage self-discovery and expression. 

Individuals enrolling in dance therapy may explore different body movements and rhythm types. 

Dance therapy can help individuals address complex emotions and feelings and explore past traumatic experiences through movement instead of words. It can significantly benefit those who struggle to express themselves verbally, leading to increased self-discovery, resilience, and long-term recovery.

Music therapy 

Music therapy involves exploring a range of different sounds and music. 

Between you and your therapist, you may listen to various types of music or use a range of different instruments to explore ways of expressing yourself and communicating your feelings. 

Typically, music therapists provide the tools and instruments, including wind chimes, drums, or bells. You may also use your voice to sing or explore different sounds and how they make you feel.  

Music therapy can help you explore painful feelings and emotions, allowing you to find a healthy outlet to express yourself in new and creative ways, leading to increased self-expression and long-term healing.

The mental health benefits of art therapy

Evidence shows the effectiveness of art therapy on individuals in recovery.

Since art therapy encourages people to express themselves more freely, without judgement or shame, this treatment can help to improve mental health symptoms and interpersonal relationships.

The principle of art therapy is cemented on the idea that individuals can recover and feel better through artistic expression.

For instance, one study showed that art therapy instantly reduced cortisol levels in 75% of participants.

Another study conducted in 2010 showed how art therapy reduced anxiety symptoms and improved the quality of life in children with asthma.

Moreover, another piece of research illustrated how just 50 minutes of art therapy can help reduce patient stress in hospital settings.  

These statistics highlight how effective art therapy can be in various therapeutic settings and may encourage many to ‘get their art on’!

What art therapy can help with

I love art. Selective focus of female hands in paint while showing the heart

Art therapy is used to treat various physical and mental health disorders, including the following:

Art therapy is often recommended as complementary therapy alongside other treatments, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and group therapy.

Art therapy at Camino Recovery

Camino Recovery provides personalised addiction and mental health treatment to clients in Spain and the United Kingdom.

Our experienced team of multidisciplinary professionals treat and diagnose various mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, personality disorders, substance addiction, and more.

We use an integrated approach to mental health recovery, treating the ‘whole’ person and not just their symptoms.

Our comprehensive art therapy program is designed around each person’s unique needs and preferences, helping them manage their behaviour and mental health symptoms, resolve internal conflict, and increase self-esteem and awareness.

To learn more about our art therapy program, contact our friendly team at Camino Recovery, who can help.

Additional resources

1. The Art of the True Self: Using Art Therapy as a Means of Self-Discovery, Alison M Kilpo, 2013
2. What Is Art Therapy? Verywell mind, Kendra Cherry, 8 November 2022

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

More from David Scourfield

Get in Touch

We treat all of our clients with the utmost care, dignity and respect. Call now for a totally confidential, no obligation conversation with one of our professionals.

Whether you’re calling for yourself or someone you know, you needn’t suffer alone.

If you or someone you know could benefit from our services please do not hesitate to contact us.