Art Therapy and Its Effect on the Brain and Body Image

Art therapy is a type of treatment that helps patients improve their mental and emotional well-being through creative expression. It can be a powerful form of therapy, specifically for people struggling to identify and express their feelings.

For those struggling with an eating disorder, art therapy can become a valuable resource and tool for healing and lasting recovery.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy uses different artistic mediums—including drawing, painting, sculpting, acting, singing, dancing, playing an instrument, and writing, among others—to express one’s thoughts and feelings. The idea is that these artistic mediums can help someone better understand or explain their experiences.

The use of art as a form of therapy has a long history, with roots dating back to mid-20th century Europe. During this time, the term “art therapy” was first coined by British artist Adrian Hill.

The treatment began as a creative outlet for patients suffering from tuberculosis, allowing them to draw and paint the people and experiences they were missing. From there, the practice was adapted for patients in mental hospitals, allowing them better means of emotional expression and release.

By the 1960s, art therapy was formally adopted in Britain and America, and it has continued to grow and adapt since then, allowing patients struggling with many conditions to find clarity through this powerful tool for self-expression.

How Does Art Therapy Work?

Sometimes with talk therapy, patients have difficulty identifying feelings or expressing themselves clearly. Art therapy offers patients an alternative to the spoken word.

Sometimes, it may help people identify previously repressed or subconscious feelings or thoughts. The use of symbolism, metaphor, and imagery in art can provide a unique avenue for the subconscious mind to express itself.

What is Art Therapy Like?

Art therapy doesn’t look like most people’s stereotypical ideas of an art class. Clients won’t necessarily learn or perfect techniques, and the focus won’t be on a finished product. Instead, art therapists focus on the process of creating art.

These specialists are masters-level clinicians who are also trained in one or several artistic mediums. As patients create, the therapists will help them seek meaning in their work by looking for recurring themes and examining what emotions and feelings come up.

When a patient finishes their work, it can be taken home or left with the therapist, but regardless, there’s no obligation to share, and the therapist won’t share it if the patient chooses to leave the work.

It’s important to remember the art made during therapy isn’t about creating a technically-sound piece. Instead, it should be viewed as a therapeutic tool, and the therapist will keep it confidential, like all other parts of therapy.


Who Benefits from Art Therapy

Art therapy can be helpful for all kinds of people. Just a few conditions the practice can help with include:

Part of what makes this form of therapy so helpful is its versatility. Art therapy can be practiced in many settings, from hospitals and schools to private practices and small-group settings. And it can be delivered to individuals, couples, families, or groups.

But the technique offers a unique advantage for people who need help with verbal communication. This can include people with conditions that hinder their ability to speak or even people who just have trouble verbally expressing themselves.

Art Therapy and the Brain

Aside from offering an alternative to talk therapy, art therapy can provide some neurological advantages.

Unlocking the Brain

Art therapy works to “wake up” three networks in the brain, creating the ability to make connections on a deeper level.

Specifically, the practice can stimulate: [1]

  • Executive attention. This network controls and regulates cognitive processes such as attention, problem-solving, and decision-making. It’s crucial for managing the brain’s ability to focus and filter out distractions.
  • Imagination. The imagination network generates, represents, and manipulates mental images, using past experiences as a guide. It also plays a part in remembering the past and planning for the future.
  • Salience. This network detects and prioritizes important stimuli in the environment. It has also been thought to play a role in the perception of body image.

Accessing these different parts of the mind can have other positive effects, including reducing stress and increasing happiness.

Improving Mood

Art therapy has also been connected to stress reduction and overall mood improvement.

One 2016 paper found that creating art lowered cortisol levels, which is the body’s primary stress hormone. In just 45 minutes, patients saw a significant decrease in cortisol levels, regardless of their skill level. [2]

Creating art has also been shown to stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. [3] These neurotransmitters are a part of the system that regulates mood, motivation, and happiness. When they’re increased, people are more likely to feel happier, less anxious, and less depressed.

Improving Body Image with Art Therapy

Body image can profoundly affect many people’s mental and emotional health, and poor body image is often one of the primary drivers of eating disorders.

People struggling with these conditions often have trouble identifying and expressing their emotional experiences. [4] This can make art therapy a handy tool for people dealing with negative body image and eating disorders.

How Art Therapy Helps with Body Image

Art and body image awareness can be closely intertwined.

Through the process of creating art, clients can explore the differences between their perception of their body and the reality of its size and shape. This can be particularly helpful for individuals who struggle with body dysmorphia or have a distorted view of their bodies.

Individuals can also better articulate their feelings about their bodies by engaging in art therapy. Creating art can serve as a way for patients to connect with and validate their own experiences. This can be a crucial step toward building a more positive and accepting perspective of themselves, such as seeing their body as a supportive, loving, and life-giving vessel.

One 2015 study bore these thoughts out. Over the course of eight weeks, seven females, ages 13-14, attended art therapy sessions. In the end, the girls reported significant improvements in body image and self-esteem, suggesting that art therapy could be effective for people struggling with body image issues. [5]

Art Therapy Activities for Building Better Body Image

Like nearly all forms of therapy, the activities and discussions involved in art therapy need to be tailored to the patient. Still, therapists can utilize many different activities to help improve their client’s body image.

Patients may be asked to create collages, paintings, or drawings. They might be encouraged to choreograph a dance, write or perform an acting scene, or write or perform a song. And for these works, they’ll be given a prompt.

Therapists may ask patients to think of any number of ideas to create their work, from parts of their body they like or don’t like to what they believe their body looks like to their idea of the “perfect” body.

Many therapists will ask patients to focus on things they like about their bodies or ask them to artistically highlight all the parts of their bodies that help them participate in joyful activities.

For example, clients might appreciate their legs for helping them dance, run, or walk. They may appreciate their arms for helping them hug a loved one, work in the garden, or even create art. Overall, the idea is to shift the perspective to all the wonderful things the body is and can do.


The Art of Healing

Creative expression can be a powerful tool for improving mental health and well-being. By harnessing the therapeutic benefits of art-making, patients can learn to better access and express their thoughts and emotions or even discover unhelpful thoughts or feelings hidden beneath the surface.

With the help and guidance of a trained therapist, these discoveries can help patients shape a healthier perspective, a higher self-esteem, and a better relationship with themselves and the world around them.

If you’re struggling with poor body image or an eating disorder, help is always available. Your primary doctor or therapist can be an excellent source for recommending further treatment, including art therapy.


    1. Misluk, E. (2021). The Benefits of Art Therapy in Eating Disorder TreatmentEating Disorders Review; 32(1).
    2. Kaimal, G., Ray, K., & Muniz, J. (2016). Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making. Art therapy: journal of the American Art Therapy Association; 33(2):74–80.
    3. Creativity and Recovery: The Mental Health Benefits of Art Therapy. (2018, July 10). Resources to Recover. Accessed January 2023.
    4. Art Therapy’s Notable Impact on Eating Disorders and Healthy Eating. (2012). American Art Therapy Association. Accessed January 2023.
    5. Higenbottam, W. (2015). In Her Image: A Study in Art Therapy with Adolescent FemalesCanadian Art Therapy Association Journal; 17(1):10-16.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated on March 29, 2023
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