Can Art Therapy Help You If You’re Not an Artist?

Artists make up less than 2% of the workforce. And because of the framework through which we view “careers”, that percentage makes sense. 

To be considered part of the workforce as an artist, you must make your living by art. In the Western world, “being an artist” doesn’t make a whole lot of fiscal sense. 

That means that there’s a huge population of people who don’t participate in art. Our society values production, side hustles – using your spare time to earn more capital, buff up your resume, learn marketable skills. 

Without a background in art, practicing creativity can even be stressful, and slow to get going. 

Have you ever tried to paint for the first time? And the image in your head doesn’t seem to send the right signals to your hand? And the painting turns out mostly brown and looks nothing like what you planned?

Or tried to pick out a song on the guitar? And found that there are chords and sequences and progressions you didn’t know about, and playing a song can take hours before getting it right?

Or bought a whittling-kit online, but instead of shaving the right pieces, you’ve bloodied up all your fingers and can’t figure out how to sand it down right?

If those experiences are familiar, you might have never thought to turn to art therapy for help.

After all, it’s typically stressful to perform functions you don’t feel confident in. 

But here’s the thing – art isn’t a profession, although it can be. Art is for everyone. Art is for amateurs as much as it is for rock stars.

Amateur: This word comes from the Latin root “amare,” which means to love. Amateur doesn’t mean “one who’s not good enough at this to earn money.” It means “one who does something for the love of it, and not for the money.”

And that’s the disconnect for a lot of people – art therapy can benefit your health whether or not you consider yourself a Real Artist.

Let’s take an in-depth look at how…

Visual Expression and the Brain 

Your brain loves when you visually express yourself. Any negative thoughts you might experience aren’t coming from the physical act of making art – they’re coming from the story you’ve told yourself about whether or not you have talent, whether or not you deserve to make art.

In fact, Girija Kaimal, a leading researcher in art therapy, noted that in her studies, she has seen no difference in pleasure, personal development, and creative problem solving between those who identify as artists and those who don’t.

Being skilled at blending watercolors doesn’t make you a likelier candidate for benefitting from art therapy – it makes you a likelier candidate for trying it.

Which would be a shame, because visual expression lights up the brain’s reward centers. And that’s not limited to painting. It includes cooking a beautiful meal (that’s art!), coloring in a coloring book (still art!), braiding a bracelet out of strings (art again!), designing a character on the computer (more art!), and much more.

You can see this happen when the prefrontal cortex receives more blood flow. That’s the area of the brain responsible for regulating our thoughts and feelings, and emotional and motivational systems – AKA, the reward center. 

Where Those Rewards Go 

Art therapy’s popularity is largely due to its wealth of benefits.

When that reward center gets excited, it tends to translate into lots of different areas.

For example, engaging in art and creativity, even for as little as 45 minutes, can reduce cortisol, the stress hormones, in participants. 

Not only that, but using the brain-hand connection to creatively express yourself releases hits of dopamine and serotonin if you stick with it. Completing tasks and seeing your ideas manifest in front of you is a natural happy-maker.

Plus, you’re looking at all of these intangible benefits as well:

  • Higher self-confidence from branching out and experiencing a new medium.
  • Better hand-eye coordination from training your hands to listen to your brain’s signals.
  • Activation of “the zone” – you know, that meditative state that spiritual people seem to be able to access happens naturally during art creation by virtue of being required to focus on the details of your task and not on the noise of your mind and environment.
  • Strengthens creative problem solving in a way that a hobby like math simply doesn’t. You see, you’ll never find the right answer. Instead, you’ll find many. 

That’s not an exhaustive list.

It’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

So if you’re feeling nervous and unwilling to dive into freeform painting, try paint-by-numbers! Coloring in a mandala notebook. Arranging a beautiful corner space for yourself in your home.
Everyone can feel those benefits – no art school required.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.