The Mind on Art: Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy

Art therapy uses creative media like painting, sketching, sculpting, to promote self-exploration and introspection. It is an adjuvant (or alternative for some) to conventional psychotherapy in which the mode of communication is more direct and discussion based. Mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT) simply adds another layer to this process, incorporating the attitudes of mindfulness into the activity and an awareness of yourself and your thoughts throughout.  Examples of MBAT can include explicitly intentioned activities like drawing a self-portrait, observing and sketching the environment you find yourself in, painting your emotional state, and more importantly, reflecting on how the experience made you feel. It can also be less explicit through coloring exercises, origami-folding, paint-by-numbers. The beauty is, you don’t have to be a practiced artist to engage with MBAT, all it takes is time set aside to be intentional with an art medium. The evidence on mindfulness-based art therapy is convincing in its ability to improve perceived quality of life in breast cancer patients1, decrease symptom burden among anxious and depressed individuals2 and, on the day-to-day, for the small worries and stressors too3.

In a review by Megan E. Beerse et al. “Biobehavioral utility of mindfulness-based art therapy: Neurobiological underpinnings and mental health impacts”, the literature was scanned for studies investigating the relationship between MBAT, the stress response, and neuroendocrine activation pathways; decreases in salivary cortisol and significant increases in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex were discovered to occur during an art-making workshop3. Interestingly in another study, participants were offered clay sculpting vs. drawing, with increased gamma power (a measure of “information-rich task processing” as seen on electroencephalogram) found among participants engaging in both activities and increased theta power (brain signals associated with meditation) among only those participants sculpting clay. These findings may suggest that manual manipulation- working with your hands- might activate a different set of neural networks, heightening the positive effects of MBAT on stress and mood. Beerse’s group showed that college students enrolled in an 8-week (2 hour sessions/week) MBAT program expressed reduced anxiety symptoms and decreased salivary cortisol levels; similar results were found following a smaller scale operation involving an in-person visit followed by 8x 15-minute clay-based MBAT activities hosted online, with a final in-person session. The proposed mechanism of clay-based MBAT activities involves changes in endocrine signals and activation of neural networks that have the potential to counter chronic daily stress. More elaborate quantification studies are needed to investigate these pathways in more depth.

A key concept highlighted in this paper is the need to address symptoms and not diagnoses. Study participants to whom these mindfulness therapies are being offered, do not need to meet the DSM-V criteria for an anxiety disorder for conclusions to be drawn around the effectiveness of a particular activity. In mindfulness research, there seem to be efforts made to move study questions towards understanding how somatic symptoms related to anxiety (migraine, irritable bowel, muscle spasms, fatigue, insomnia)3 can be modulated rather than how anxiety as an entity can be treated or cured. This approach might help popularize and increase perceived accessibility to mindfulness-based therapies, making them an adjunct to wellness rather than a medical intervention to treat a psychiatric condition.

We encourage you to try out mindfulness-based art therapy today! Here are some wonderful illustrations that you can print out and color according to the emotions you feel during the upcoming week. Feel free to share your results on social media (Instagram, Twitter) and tag us!

(1) Jang SH, Kang SY, Lee HJ, Lee SY. Beneficial Effect of Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy in Patients with Breast Cancer-A Randomized Controlled Trial. Explore (NY). 2016;12(5):333-340. doi:10.1016/j.explore.2016.06.003
(2) Pamela Newland, B. Ann Bettencourt, Effectiveness of mindfulness-based art therapy for symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fatigue: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Volume 41, 2020, 101246, ISSN 1744-3881,

This article was written by Madison Le Gallee, and illustrations created by Yukyung Kang, both medical students at McGill University and members of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.

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