Art Therapy and Its Effect on the Brain and Body Image

a man engaging in Art Therapy and Its Effect on eating disordersArt therapy and its effect reaches a part of the brain traditional “talk” therapy doesn’t access, and this type of therapy can be particularly effective in addressing body image.

While it is helpful to explain and discuss feelings, talking is intellectual and can contribute to the divide between thoughts and feelings. We can talk about our feelings instead of actually feeling them.

When we move into the right side of our brains, the creative side, we detach from the need to explain and, instead, can feel more deeply. Creating something uses the body and naturally evokes how we feel in our bodies.

Art therapy is also effective for people in long-term talk therapy, including those struggling with an eating disorder, to disengage from discussion and try another method to reach emotional spaces.

Bringing Images Forward

“Images originating within the mind are brought forward, and expressed with the help of the body,” says Margaret Hunter, author of “Reflections of Body Image in Art Therapy: Exploring Self Through Metaphor and Multi-Media,” said in an interview.

“Participants begin to see themselves as artists. As they celebrate diversity of ideas, materials, and forms, they also develop an appreciation for the diversity and uniqueness of the body-vehicle that moves through the life journey.”1

Art therapy is considered an expressive therapy, which also includes music, dance/movement, drama, creative writing, play, and photography. Several of the expressive therapies are also considered “creative arts therapies”—specifically, art, music, dance/movement, drama, and creative writing according to the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations.

What Art Therapy and Its Effect Can Help Treat

art-therapyArt therapy is a common element of therapy to treat people with body dissatisfaction and/or eating disorders.

People struggling with these issues are often type-A personalities — hard on themselves and very aware of how they are perceived by others — and art therapy can help because it is based on the act of creation rather than the product.

The process can help people “learn how to appreciate who they are in the moment, explore reasons for their behaviors, and establish new barometers for self-acceptance,” says art therapist Dr. Deah Schwartz2.

Expressive therapy gives someone a “tangible body experience of how feelings affect them, and a safe place to explore ways to manage those feelings.”

How Group Settings Assist with Art Therapy

Art therapy often occurs in a group setting, where the artist is able to show and receive validation and encouragement from several others, rather than the therapist alone.

This is powerful for those with poor body image, who often times also have feelings of self-hate, ineffectiveness, and lack of self-worth, according to Canadian art therapist Jen Burton Liang. “Art can move the eating-disordered client towards trusting and expressing their own feelings and abilities,” she said.

The Benefits of Art Therapy and Its Effect

Happy Middle-Aged Woman PaintingResearch shows art therapy has many benefits, including improving quality of life in female breast cancer patients.

After breast cancer surgery, women who had just five sessions of art therapy over five weeks were less depressed, anxious, and stressed than other women who had the same surgery but no art therapy3.

Art therapy doesn’t necessarily have to be formal to be effective. Simply coloring has long been shown in adults to relax and relieve apprehension.

“The action involves both logic, by which we color forms, and creativity, when mixing and matching colors. This incorporates the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and fine motor skills [coordination necessary to make small, precise movements]. The relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress.”4

Carl Jung was one of the first to suggest coloring relaxes people. He did this through mandalas, circular designs with concentric shapes similar to the Gothic churches’ rose windows, the article reads. This is just one aspect of art therapy and its amazing power to get us out of our heads and closer to our hearts.

About the Author:

Leigh Bell holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in Creative Writing and French from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is a published author, journalist with 15 years of experience, and a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Leigh is recovered from a near-fatal, decade-long battle with anorexia and the mother of three young, rambunctious children.


  1. Using art therapy to tackle issues with body image – An interview with Margaret Hunter. (2012, July 6). Retrieved June 27, 2015.
  2. Schwartz, D. (2014, March 21). Expressive Arts Therapy and Eating Disorders | National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved June 29, 2015.
  3. Thyme, K., Sundin, E., Wiberg, B., Oster, I., Aström S., (2009). Individual brief art therapy can be helpful for women with breast cancer: a randomized controlled clinical study. Palliative Support Care, 7(1), 87-95.
  4. Brooks, K. (2014, October 13). Coloring Isn’t Just For Kids. It Can Actually Help Adults Combat Stress. Retrieved June 29, 2015.

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 & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 7th, 2015
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