Why Art Therapy, Colouring Books & Creating Stuff Reduces Stress

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Around 2015 or so, adult colouring books arrived on the Amazon bestseller list, and haven’t left since. The response was polarising: Kate Middleton was reportedly a fan at one point, but Quartz dubbed them America’s “cry for help.” Forbes called them the “dark horse of publishing”that year. Regardless of how you feel about colouring books for those past grade school, studies have proven that they do help some de-stress at the end of the day, highlighting an oft-forgotten means of stress relief: creating art.

For most people, our creative lives end with our formal arts education in high school. “What happens is people grow up and they think they’re not creative, and so they cut themselves off from this really powerful way of expressing themselves,” says Dr. Christianne Strang, PhD, ATR-BC, CEDCAT-S, the president of the American Art Therapy Association and an assistant professor in the behavioural neuroscience program at the University of Alabama. “Anything that someone can do that can be an entry into connecting with their sense of creativity can be really powerful.”

“My daughter will say, ‘playing the violin helps me feel good. When I play the violin when I’m upset, I see better,’” describes Girija Kaimal, EdD, MA, ATR-BC and assistant professor in the creative therapies department at Drexel University. When engaging in the arts — whether that’s writing, drawing, music, or dance — you channel your emotions in a constructive way. This is called sublimation. “[When sublimating,] you channel what might be a destructive or difficult emotion into something that’s adaptive and positive,” Dr. Kaimal says. “You don’t go and punch someone, but you might punch a piece of clay, and make something out of it, so you redirect what might be difficult emotion into something positive and adaptive.”

That said, sublimating, or using art as a form of self-care, can only take you so far. Dr. Kaimal likes to use a home improvement analogy: you can cover a scuff on the wall with a framed picture, or change a lightbulb to brighten up a dark room, but once you start having electrical or plumbing problems, it’s time to call a professional.

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