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Adina Silvestri Mar 23, 2015

Art Therapy & Anxiety: Is it just child’s play?

As a kid, recess was my favorite part of the day. I loved being outside exploring or inside coloring—letting my mind travel (sometimes too much). In this free-spirited vein, I recently started using Art Therapy with my adult population as a way to end our last session. It was a “party” of sorts. All clients needed to bring was their imagination and a willingness to try. However, after a recent art class, it made sense to me that Art Therapy should not be saved for a special occasion, but utilized whenever possible.

As we know, Art Therapy reduces anxiety. For individuals who sometimes “think too much,” talk therapy is not always the best solution.

Art can be relaxing. As long as one can tune out his or her inner critic and be mindful of the moment, one will experience calm; senses will be re-engaged. And we are able to speak another language with our clients. This language will be a new for most and will take some time getting used to—just like Spanish sounds foreign in the beginning—but after some time, communication will flourish in new ways.

Clients may balk at the idea of coloring to suppress their sympathetic nervous system. They may feel odd or discouraged. But to that I would simply say, “Why not? What you have done so far is not working.”

How much control do we really have?

The causes of anxiety can be multiple. Why then should we only use one intervention? Art Therapy allows those perfectionistic individuals to let go of control. Their only job is to follow directions and move their hand in fluid motions.

 Of course, the first thing I hear in my practice is often a hesitation, such as, “I cannot draw.”

“Can you draw lines, circles and symbols?” I always respond. “Yes? Then you can draw.”

In practice, I had one individual who was so insistent on using each color in her color palette to paint. She said she could not bear to waste even one color. This, as you can imagine led to much exploration in other areas of her life. 

Art and Anxiety

“Anxiety is part of creativity. The need to get something out. The need to be rid of something, or to get in touch with something within,” says actor David Duchovny. It is often difficult to go through this process with language alone. Individuals censor their speech instead of just letting it flow.

There can be a purging of emotions when clients look at their drawings in crayon or marker. An inner beast awakens and will lurch onto the page with emotion and sometimes deeply rooted fears.



Art as a therapeutic tool is a newer concept for me. I had used it in assessment with children and sometimes in adults but seldom as a therapeutic tool for anxiety. However, since I have begun this practice, I have learned a number of interventions work well.

Art Therapy Practices for Adults with Anxiety:

1) Zen Doodling-great way to focus one’s thoughts is to use creative doodling

2) Coloring-have clients draw anything and color it with one of their fav. colors

3) Identifying one’s fears and replacing them with a happy place-assist clients by having them draw their fears and then replacing their fears with the opposite feeling. Include a visualization exercise of his/her happy place. 

Can art really make us happy? 

As Picasso once said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” When you use art to engage your senses, this helps to regulate your blood pressure and heart rate. And, lets be honest, art is fun! Our clients are able to relax, which may be the only time in their day when they feel truly happy.

There’s something we understood about doodling and imagining as children that we sometimes forget as adults. As therapists, we need to revive that childhood spirit in our clients. Everyone will be the better for it.


Hass-Cohen, Noah and Carr, Richard, editors (2008).  Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Philadelphia, PA.
Adina Silvestri is a licensed professional counselor, researcher, and counselor educator who works with adults and children in her private practice, Life Cycles Counseling.It is her passion to work with individuals with addiction through counseling, research and advocacy efforts with the hope of raising awareness to the lack of gender specific treatment and recovery programs. Read more about her at 


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