Why art therapy could help with your mental health

  • One Hong Kong social worker explains how tapping into your creative side can help you relieve stress and get in touch with your feelings
  • This expressive therapy is good for anxiety and helps you explore your inner thoughts and feelings
Doris Wai |

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Art can be a good way to express emotions you might not be ready to talk about - or that you didn't know you had.

Whether you’re an aspiring Picasso or just enjoy doodling random circles in a notebook, tapping into your creative side can do wonders for your mental well-being.

Katie Leung Pui-yan, a clinical social worker at Lifespan Counselling in Hong Kong, lets Young Post into the world of art therapy, in which creativity is more than painting a pretty picture - art can actually relieve stress and help you get in touch with your feelings.

We might not always feel comfortable talking about our emotions, and art allows us to voice our unhappiness and anxiety without expressing them through words.

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“You’re focusing on an activity, and it takes you away from having to talk about a problem until you’re ready,” says Leung, who uses this form of expressive therapy with her clients.

Art therapy is more than just having a therapist look at a patient’s painting to figure out what’s wrong with them. In reality, the artwork is a tool for patients to more easily discuss their emotions.

She explains: “Artistic expression through painting, writing and even photography allows us to recreate an emotion. Sometimes, the problem is so deep within us that it’s difficult to talk about it.

It's not just painting - it's therapy.

“Instead, if you put what ‘anger’ looks like for you in a clay sculpture, you have a physical form of what’s boggling you, and can properly address it.”

As well as making clay sculptures, Leung also uses an art therapy activity called the outside/inside mask. With a plaster mask, she asks her patients to paint the outside of it to show how they present themselves to others, while they paint the inside to reflect their inner feelings.

This acts as a starting point to discuss what is troubling them. She works with her patients to interpret the emotions behind their mask painting.

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“You’d be surprised by some of these masks and what they mean to the creators. They may have a colourful exterior and bleak interior, and that’s not necessarily bad,” she says.

While Leung conducts these sessions as a professional therapist, she says anyone can benefit from creative expression, as it even helps ease stress after a difficult week.

Sculpting clay and painting masks is a great way to bring out your feelings. And once you have put your emotions in a physical form, ask yourself what you’d like to do with it.

You don’t have to pretend to be fine if you’re not!

“Some choose to put it away in a box; others throw it in the bin or even smash it up ... The act of physically destroying something can be therapeutic, as it’s symbolic of removing a problem in your life,” she says.

Other forms of art therapy you can do at home include mandala colouring or freestyle painting, which can focus and calm you if you’re feeling anxious.

If you’re having a hard time expressing yourself to friends and family, Leung suggests coming together and creating a splash mural with a big piece of paper, brushes and paint.

Something like adult colouring books can also help relieve stress.

“Pick a feeling, a theme, and express yourselves through paint. The whipping of the paintbrush itself is ... exciting and therapeutic.”

And while you’re at it, remember how the final product turns out is not what matters.

“Art therapy is not about unleashing your inner da Vinci, but using the creative process to explore your thoughts and feelings.”

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