Have you ever been in a negative headspace, turned on your favorite song, and instantly felt better? If so, you already know about some of music’s benefits for mental health. Creating artwork often operates the same way — getting lost in creativity can improve mood and help you process feelings.
Art and music therapies have been used in formal medical and psychological contexts for decades.¹ But anyone who appreciates art and music knows you don’t need to access them in a hospital or doctor’s office to reap their benefits. Even so, trained art and music therapists exist to help patients take full advantage of these assets.
In addition to improving mental health, how else can art and music enhance physical health and well-being? How can you know if you would benefit from art or music therapy? Read our guide to find out more.
Art therapy is a way of treating mental and physical health disorders through creative expression. Allowing participants to create art helps them heal from psychological distress, as well as helping to boost mood, process feelings and emotions, develop coping skills, and understand treatment options.
Art therapy can include various art types, from photography and painting to collage and sculpture — as long as the medium helps the patient express their emotions and gain insight into their thoughts and behaviors.
Art therapy isn’t typically used as the only treatment for mental health issues. Instead, it is combined with other methods, like talk therapy, group therapy, and others.² Several studies have shown that art therapy can help with a variety of issues in addition to mental health:
- A review of 27 art therapy studies found that art therapy helped a variety of patients, including those who had been diagnosed with cancer and other medical conditions, those with mental health issues (including those coping with trauma), incarcerated people, older people, and those without a specific diagnosis who simply needed help dealing with daily obstacles.³
- Surgery patients had shorter hospital stays if they participated in visual art therapy post-op.⁴
- Patients who had surgery or were in critical care required less pain medication if they took part in art therapy or had artwork in their hospital room.⁴
- One study included about 200 hospitalized people and found that taking part in art therapy for approximately 50 minutes improved mood and lowered pain and anxiety levels.⁵
Experts state that the type of art you participate in doesn’t matter — you can choose almost any type of artistic expression, and you’ll find health benefits. If you don’t consider yourself an artistic person, that’s ok. Art therapy isn’t about producing amazing art; it’s about self-expression and getting the help you need. Choose a type of art you’ve always wanted to try or one you enjoyed as a child.⁶
The American Art Therapy Association includes a list of certified art therapists with at least a master’s degree in art therapy. Use their therapist locator to find an art therapist near you.
In addition to pain relief and mood boosting, creative self-expression offers a bevy of other health benefits, including improving depression symptoms, enhancing memory, and maybe even reversing signs of aging. Read our full list below to learn about all of the ways art can benefit your physical and mental well-being.
Improves mental health
Creating art can help improve your mental health in various ways, including:
- Relieving stress
- Enhancing self-esteem
- Improving depression symptoms
- Reducing negative feelings around chronic illness
If you’ve ever gotten lost in an art project, you may have noticed that your brain was distracted from daily stressors while working. This isn’t a coincidence. Many studies show that creating art reduces stress, especially in people with mental health disorders and physical health issues.
For example, patients with dementia reduce stress-related behaviors while participating in art therapy and taking anti-dementia medication. Researchers have concluded that art therapy is a way to help treat stress in these patients without overmedicating.⁷
Encouraging creative self-expression can also help mental well-being regardless of age. Researchers discovered that combining art therapy with the outdoors reduces stress and improves self-esteem in children.⁸ Art therapy can also help improve self-esteem and depression symptoms in nursing home patients.⁹
Experts have also found that creating art helps relieve depression symptoms of incarcerated people,¹⁰ older women,¹¹ and adolescents,¹² among others. And it can also help people with chronic illnesses reduce pain and feel better equipped to mentally process their condition, leading to improved well-being and quality of life.¹³
In addition to mental health benefits, creating art can also improve brain function. Often, participants in art therapy describe “losing time” while creating their artwork because they are so focused and feel like their minds are firing on all cylinders. These benefits can help to:
- Inspire creativity
- Encourage healthy aging
- Increase resilience
- Improve academic performance
One study tested the cognition of around 130 adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) before and after participating in art therapy. Researchers found that the overall cognition of the group dramatically improved after art therapy.¹⁴ Art therapy may also help improve the cognition of older people with neurocognitive disorders.¹⁵
While creating art can’t reverse the signs of aging, some studies show that having older populations participate in art therapy helps encourage healthy aging by reducing negative feelings, boosting self-esteem, and reducing anxiety.¹⁶ Art therapy can also help older people enhance or develop social skills, build self-compassion and self-acceptance, and create a stronger link with their past or cultural heritage.¹⁷
Art therapy may also improve the academic performance of children and teens who have experienced trauma. One study found that participating in art therapy dramatically improved the academic performance of children from divorced parents.¹⁸ One researcher found that allowing adolescents to participate in art therapy during the school day improved their feelings of safety and acceptance at school and allowed them to process stressful events.¹⁹
Creating and even just viewing artwork can help us get in touch with our feelings and emotions. These activities can also help us express ourselves and learn valuable life skills.
One study reveals that spending just a few hours at an art museum can help children and teens improve empathy and tolerance. Viewing artwork that shows others’ cultures and history helped students cultivate more compassion.²⁰ Another researcher used art therapy to boost elementary students’ social-emotional learning and found that the students increased their levels of empathy and improved their abilities to make decisions and self-manage behaviors.²¹
Music therapy is the use of music to help treat mental and physical issues. It may involve:
- Listening to music
- Playing an instrument
- Discussing lyrics
- Movement or dancing
- Composing original songs
No background or musical talent is necessary to participate. Like art therapy, music therapy can help with psychological issues (like anxiety, depression, and stress) and physical ailments (like blood pressure, insomnia, and recovery from surgery).²²
Music therapy can benefit a variety of people, including:
- People with autism
- Those with substance abuse disorders
- Incarcerated people
- Trauma survivors
- Those with chronic illnesses²²
Many studies have been conducted to show the benefits of music therapy in treating psychological and physical health conditions. They often show music therapy’s effectiveness in combination with other treatments, like talk therapy or medication. Here are some interesting findings:
- A review of music therapy studies found that music can help with relaxation, mood, cognition, depression, anxiety, stress, and PTSD.²³
- One study found that regular music listening reduced auditory hallucinations in patients with schizophrenia and, in general, improved patients’ quality of life.²³
- Patients who used music therapy post-surgery showed decreased pain compared to a control group.²⁴
- Music therapy has shown to be effective in enhancing language recovery for stroke survivors, improving aphasia symptoms.²⁵
The American Music Therapy Association offers a directory (along with many other resources) that can help you locate a board-certified music therapist near you.
While you may have assumed that music therapy can help with mental health disorders, you may not have imagined that it can also help with issues like exercise recovery and performance, weight management, and cognition. But scientific research shows that music therapy can help us in diverse ways. Keep reading to find out more.
Improve physical health
There are many ways that listening to or performing music can impact your physical health, including:
- Lessening pain
- Reducing insomnia
- Maintaining weight
- Lowering blood pressure
While it may seem unlikely that music can do all of these things for your body, research shows that listening to music, even if it’s just for a few minutes every day, can improve overall well-being. And participating in structured and regular music therapy can have long-lasting impacts.
For example, one review of studies showed that music therapy lessened pain intensity and anxiety for people giving birth,²⁶ while another study showed that music therapy could be effective in lowering pain felt by those going through cancer treatments.²⁷
Participating in music therapy may also improve sleep quality and treat insomnia. One study showed a significant improvement in sleep quality for students listening to music for just one hour per day,²⁸ and another study showed that listening to music reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and lengthens sleep duration.²⁹
Although there is not much research devoted to the topic yet, music could help you manage weight by encouraging you to eat slower and eat less. One study shows that listening to slow-tempo music causes us to consume food slower than listening to fast-tempo music or no music. The researchers conclude that music could be used to regulate eating patterns, possibly helping people consume less food in one sitting.³⁰
Music may be an effective way to lower blood pressure for those with hypertension. One review of studies revealed that listening to music can help lower systolic blood pressure,³¹ while another showed that music therapy can help lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety in older people.³²
Improve mental health
Just like art therapy, music therapy can be an effective and non-pharmacological way to treat mental health disorders and other forms of psychological distress, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Music therapy may also help boost mood and encourage relaxation.
For critically ill patients, music therapy has shown to be a consistent way of reducing stress and anxiety.³³ Trauma survivors and those with PTSD may also find music therapy to be a way of relieving symptoms and processing emotions.³⁴ Those with depression who add music therapy to their treatment plan may see a reduction in stress and an increase in daily functioning.³⁵
Studies have shown that music therapy can help improve cognition, particularly in patients with neurocognitive issues. People living with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, may see improved memory and language ability if they participate in music therapy. These effects may also lead to fewer psychiatric symptoms like depression, hallucinations, or aggression.³⁶
Another study of participants with mild cognitive impairment or dementia showed that music therapy improved cognition, mood, and quality of life.²⁹
Improve exercise performance
If you work out regularly, you might do so with your earbuds in and your favorite music blaring. Sometimes music might seem like a distraction that makes your workout time go by faster, but studies show that listening to music while working out can have many benefits, such as:
- Improving exercise performance
- Enhancing endurance
- Speeding recovery time
Listening to music while working out can improve attitude and mood and strengthen physical performance across a wide range of exercises.³⁷ Music that is motivational and selected by the individual may also help with exercise endurance and performance as well as help boost enjoyment.³⁸ Listening to slow, relaxing music after a workout may speed exercise recovery time.³⁹
Speed healthy recovery
In addition to exercise recovery, listening to music may also help your body heal during or after treatment for certain physical health issues. For example, music may help provide relaxation before and after surgery, with studies showing that music therapy can help ease both pain and anxiety for post-op patients.⁴⁰
One meta-analysis of studies showed that music therapy could help ease stress and improve the quality of life for cancer patients. The studies showed that music therapy helped lessen anxiety, depression symptoms, and the need for pain medication.⁴¹
Many resources are available to teach you more about art and music therapy and help you find therapists near you. Below, we’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of resources that we think are valuable in helping you engage with these two forms of therapy.
- American Art Therapy Association
- Art Therapy Credentials Board
- Psychology.org: Art Therapy
- Psychology Today: Art Therapy
- What is Art Therapy?
- American Music Therapy Association
- American Psychological Association: Music as Medicine
- Journal of Music Therapy
- Music Therapy: More Than Just Entertainment
- Psychology Today: Music Therapy
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