The Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy

Closeup of brush and palette.
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You have probably heard of both mindfulness and art therapy—but have you heard of mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT)? This relatively new concept was first formally introduced by psychologist and writer Laury Rappaport in 2009 in her book "Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies." In its simplest sense, MBAT combines the benefits of mindfulness training (for example, meditation) within the structure of an art therapy framework.

Definition of MBAT

There are several components that are involved in creating the concept of mindfulness-based art therapy.

Mindfulness

The concept of mindfulness originated from Buddhist practice and reflects a focus on awareness of emotions, physical sensations in the body, and consciousness. When you are being mindful, you have an enhanced ability in terms of your self-awareness and capacity to reflect on your experience and daily life.

Art Therapy

Art therapy first became popularized as a form of treatment in the 1940s as a method of utilizing art either as an approach to therapy or as part of psychotherapy itself. To understand what this means, consider two examples:

  • In "art as therapy," you as a client would create art as a way to identify and release emotions that you've been holding inside.
  • In "art psychotherapy," your therapist would analyze art that you create to develop insight into your psychological issues and emotions.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

A precursor to mindfulness-based art therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is used to help clients approach situations from a place of acceptance and awareness. In this way, MBSR is a technique to improve your understanding of your inner self and emotions. MBSR makes use of techniques such as body scanning and meditation.

Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy

Combining mindfulness concepts with art therapy results in the therapeutic treatment known as mindfulness-based art therapy as first proposed by Rappaport. This treatment combines the philosophy of mindfulness within an art therapy setting. In other words, you engage in the creative process of making art as a way to explore yourself (in a mindful manner).

MBAT has slowly gained recognition as a tool for improvement in the field of psychology, though research-based evidence is still lacking, particularly with respect to studies with both treatment and control groups (to confirm that MBAT is better than a placebo treatment). Another name for mindfulness-based art therapy is "focusing-oriented art therapy," reflecting the emphasis on shifting focus as part of the experience.

In proposing the concept of MBAT, Rappaport incorporated the work of psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin's theory on focusing. Gendlin noticed that the clients who improved the most in therapy were the ones who connected to their inner physical self. In essence, mindfulness-based art therapy connects the imagination to the body and allows the expression of feelings that you can't get express in words.

Benefits

Numerous benefits of mindfulness-based art therapy have been identified through empirical research. Some of the psychological issues that have shown promise in terms of their response to MBAT include the following (particularly in people with combined physical illnesses):

  • anxiety disorders
  • eating disorders
  • substance abuse (relapse prevention)
  • depressive disorders
  • stress-related issues
  • anger-related issues

Often, MBAT is used with individuals with physical illnesses to relieve psychological concerns, including those with coronary artery disease (CAD) and different types of cancer. For these individuals, mindfulness-based art therapy may help to lower distress levels and improve quality of life.

Some of the specific psychological benefits of MBAT that have been demonstrated in the literature include the following:

  • improved psychological stability
  • improved quality of life (QoL)
  • changes in brain patterns reflecting a calm, focused state of attention
  • thicker and more developed gray matter areas in the brain
  • development of neural pathways in your brain that enable you to create and focus on art making
  • reduced cognitive avoidance in which you become less aware of what you are thinking and doing when experiencing psychological distress
  • improved intuition and trust in your own body (how you are feeling and what it means)
  • increased emotional awareness
  • increased sense of control and ability to share inner thoughts
  • improved awareness of underlying issues that have been hidden
  • ability to communicate abstract feelings
  • increased self-esteem and self-acceptance
  • improved attention span

Finally, mindfulness-based art therapy is beneficial because it can be easier to practice than attending psychotherapy appointments (in the case of self-help MBAT). Meditation can be practiced on your own at home as can many art-based forms of mindfulness.

While this doesn't replace interaction with a therapist, there are endless possibilities in terms of cost-efficient ways to implement MBAT in your daily life to combat stress and manage psychological difficulties.

Examples of MBAT

What exactly does MBAT look like in practice? While it's often administered in a therapy setting, many of these activities you could also implement your own at home. Let's take a look at some examples of mindfulness-based art therapy techniques to give you some sense of what to expect (if you are meeting with a therapist for the first time).

MBAT can be a fun way to bring more mindfulness into your life, even if you are only doing it on your own at home. Do something for one hour a week that integrates mindfulness and art, and you'll more than likely see benefits to your psychological health.

  • Draw a picture of yourself. This is an exercise in self-acceptance. Try to make the picture as realistic as possible and be accepting of any "flaws" that you identify in the picture.
  • Mindfully study art materials. Examine art with a mindful eye using all five of your senses. What do you see, feel, touch, hear, taste? Engage in sensory stimulation and monitor your responses to all forms of art in your daily life.
  • Use art to express emotions. As you paint, sculpt, draw, or otherwise create art, try to channel the emotions and feelings you are experiencing in your body. Observe any physical sensations while you are drawing or coloring. Express happy or stressful events from your week through your art. Retrieve the feelings that you experience in your body and display them in your art to help recognize your own unmet needs and hidden emotions that you have yet found a way to communicate or notice.
  • Notice pain changing. If you live with chronic pain due to a physical illness, notice how your pain changes as you create art.
  • Paint and walk. Paint the bottoms of your feet and create art by walking on paper.
  • Create a collage. Make a collage that expresses your feelings and emotions.
  • Before-and-after art pieces. Take notice of how you feel before and after creating an art piece to see if you notice improvements in your psychological well-being.

MBAT With Children

Mindfulness-based art therapy has been used with children experiencing trauma or who are going through physical illness and are hospitalized. For example, children might be asked to draw pictures to imagine the future or to share how they are feeling. When used with children, MBAT has been shown to increase self-awareness, resilience, and self-compassion.

Alternative MBAT

In addition to traditional art-making, mindfulness-based art therapy can include drama therapy and musical therapy. These forms of MBAT make use of art to transform feelings and improve relaxation. For example, children will physical illnesses might observe a play by actors incorporating breathing and imagery instructions so that they learn to participate in mindfulness.

Palliative Care and MBAT

For patients nearing the end of life, mindfulness-based art therapy can be helpful to connect with spirituality, meaning in life, faith, and peace. While MBAT cannot help to reduce physical symptoms of illness, it may be useful in improving emotional well-being and psychological strength during times of distress, reflecting the goals of palliative care.

A Word From Verywell

Mindfulness-based art therapy combines forms of mindfulness and art to offer a method to help manage psychological issues, particularly among those experiencing other problems such as physical illness or end-of-life concerns. If you or a loved one is struggling with these types of issues, MBAT offered through a psychotherapist or other mental health professional or practiced on your own at home could be helpful in improving your quality of life and general psychological well-being.

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