What Happened When I Made Art Therapy My Go-To For Anxiety

After a cross-country move, restarting talk therapy felt intimidating. So I tried art therapy instead.

Sitting crisscross applesauce on the floor, I threaded one tiny bead after another onto an elastic string. After five rosy pink beads, I reached for my metal tweezers to pluck the next five from the violet compartment of my growing collection. As I daydreamed about mailing my cottagecore art project to my sister back in California, my cell phone’s alarm jolted me back to reality. The last hour felt like my childhood summers spent at Girl Scout camp, but I was somewhere else entirely: I was at therapy.

Since 2018, traditional talk therapy had been my go-to for keeping my mental health intact. But after moving cross-country in March, the idea of vetting hundreds of therapists and explaining the peculiarities of my life story to someone new sounded worse than the possibility of living through another Bennifer breakup. Still, like 60% of millennials who reported feeling anxious last year, my anxiety had been acting up more than usual, and I knew hopping back on the therapy train was more urgent than getting caught up on The Real Housewives of Potomac.

Scrolling through a database of local therapists, I checked off my usual requirements, like therapists who specialized in family dynamics, social anxiety, and body positivity. Under the “Type of Service” section, however, I selected a few criteria that I’d never seen before: “art therapy” and “creative arts therapy.” As a longtime contemporary dancer, the idea of tapping into my artistic side sounded both fun and helpful for some of the career roadblocks I faced, like burnout and writer’s block. So, when I stumbled upon a licensed art therapist in New York 30 minutes later, I wondered if this individual might better speak my language.

What Is Art Therapy & Who Can Benefit?

According to the Art Therapy Association of America (ATAA), the practice combines “active art-making” with traditional talk therapy. The goal is to improve cognitive function, increase self-esteem, reduce stress, and promote creative growth. There’s also mounting evidence that art therapy can calm anxiety and improve your emotional regulation.

When I first started art therapy, I was surprised to find that I didn’t need any real artistic talent to thrive in my sessions. I imagined I might be tasked with drawing intricate flowers, painting the oddly specific off-white color of an egg, or shading mandalas in an adult coloring book while venting about my daily stressors. Instead, with my new therapist’s supervision, the art I made in my sessions illustrated beliefs I didn’t know I had.

When my therapist asked me to draw how I saw myself, for example, I drew bright stars on an indigo sky with stormy rain clouds below. Reviewing my finished artwork, I saw something I had never been able to vocalize out loud — my anxiety was blocking my ability to be the bright, beautiful person I already was. Even though I talked about my feelings with friends and family constantly, my first few sessions showed me there were plenty of other ways I could express myself.

Using Art Therapy to Manage Anxiety

Each weekly session looked completely different. Sometimes, my therapist and I would spend the entire time discussing how I felt about what was going on in my life, like traditional talk therapy. During others, we’d practice mindful meditation or breathwork.

But every other week or so, my therapist guided my art-making. Prior to our first session, she had sent me three different art media: acrylic paints, oil pastels, and a beading kit. One day, she asked me to use the pastels to draw one continuous line, creating loops and dips, seeing where it went without any active effort or thought. Then, she asked me to color whatever I saw there — like looking for animals in the clouds when you were a kid. Over the next 10 minutes, I felt smooth pastels — reds, blues, purples — crumble under my fingers as I blended pigments together. Covered in pastels, I felt calm and relaxed making a complete mess on my living room floor. My masterpiece looked like it was drawn by a 7-year-old, and I let go of the need to maintain my cool-and-collected adult exterior.

My therapist then helped analyze what I’d made, noticing that I tended to incorporate patterns into my art, like repeated swirls-filled hearts or rows of zig-zags. These patterns, she suggested, might represent the difficulty I had letting go of control or accepting the unknown. A recovering perfectionist, I couldn’t stop laughing at how accurate her conclusion was. It was a wake-up call to acknowledge my anxiety and let it go in emergencies or when I’ve made a mistake, reminding myself that my life isn’t a predictable, pastel pattern.

In between sessions, which I did mostly remotely, "homework" looked like a timed journaling session or an hour of mindful beading, after which I felt both at ease and proud of my ability to accomplish hard tasks. After one session where I’d confessed I didn’t have many fun outlets in my life (aside from weddings on weddings, of course), I was given instructions to dance in my living room with AirPods. The assignment transported me back to childhood dance class in a blur of pink tights, satin ballet slippers, and ballerina buns forced into place with bobby pins — one of the only places I’d felt like myself as a kid. Art therapy often reminded me of being that little girl, who had no idea what financial stress, perfectionism, or anxiety were.

How I Felt After 3 Months of Art Therapy

After spending the summer in art therapy, I’m certainly no Georgia O’Keeffe. But I feel more and more like an artist: someone who can make something beautiful out of a blank page. Day by day, session by session, and bead by bead, I started to feel a little lighter. I saw clearly for the first time that mental health, just like painting or sculpting, is a practice that takes commitment, dedication, and creativity.