December 22, 2017
2 min read

Art therapy reduces stress more effectively than coloring alone

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Although coloring had a positive effect on stress reduction, only art therapist-facilitated sessions demonstrated significant improvements, research findings suggest.

“There is ongoing interest in researching drawing and coloring from fields outside of art therapy, which may be increasing due to the prevalence of adult coloring books in our visual culture. ... A number of studies have shown that premade coloring pages or simple drawing tasks and other art-making activities have been effective in reducing anxiety,” Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor at Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions, and colleagues wrote. “What many of these studies are lacking is the presence of a trained art therapist during the art-making portions of the experiments and the verbal processing of the art product created — both are crucial components of art therapy practice.”

Researchers compared the positive and negative affect, perceived stress, self-efficacy and creative agency of art therapist-facilitated open studio vs. individual coloring in 29 adults aged 19 to 67 years. They invited each participant to engage in a 40-minute session of just coloring, and one 40-minute open studio session involving direct input from an art therapist. In the coloring exercise, participants colored in a pattern or design, and in the other exercise, participants had the opportunity to create any type of art and had a therapist available to help. Participants took standardized surveys before and after their sessions that ranked stress levels and feelings.

Kaimal and colleagues found that the art therapist-facilitated open studio exercise lead to superior improvements in positive affect (25%), creative agency (4%) and self-efficacy (7%) compared with the coloring exercise. However, both sessions resulted in lowered stress (10% for coloring; 14% for open studio) and reduced negative affect (7% for coloring; 6% for open studio).

"The art therapists' open studio sessions resulted in more empowerment, creativity and improved mood, which are significant for individuals striving to improve their quality of life and make lasting change,” Kaimal said in a press release. “Coloring might allow for some reduction in distress or negativity, but since it is a structured task, it might not allow for further creative expression, discovery and exploration, which we think is associated with the positive mood improvements we saw in the open studio condition.”

The authors suggest that future research should aim to identify how creating art with the assistance of art therapists alters the positive affect, creative agency and self-efficacy.

"The art therapist-facilitated session involves more interpersonal interaction, problem solving around creative choices and expression, empowerment and perhaps more learning about the self and others. That all contributes to the outcomes we saw," Kaimal said. "The main takeaway is that coloring has some limited benefits like reducing stress and negative mental states, but it does not shift anything else of substance, develop relationships, nor result in any personal development." – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: Healio Psychiatry was unable to confirm any relevant financial disclosures at the time of publication.