Art Therapy for Relaxation & Brain Health: Crafting Stress Out of Your Life

Have you ever heard a preschool teacher say, “Art should be about the process, not the product.”? Art therapy involves a meditative or therapeutic process that, like the wisdom espoused by the preschool teacher, is about the process and not the final product. As children we are given permission to squish our fingers into finger paints and wipe them on paper with no intended outcome. We are given playdough to knead, shape, smash, and repeat.  The process of creating is encouraged in children.  However, there is a point as we age when art moves from the process to a more judgmental form where it is evaluated and critiqued. This shift is often the end of a person’s enjoyment and exploration of their personal art. However, kneading dough, wielding scissors, painting, drawing, sculpting, taking beautiful photos, or manipulating a colorful strand of yarn into an object can be liberating if approached with the right mindset.

Art therapy has been used with children with Autism and adults with Alzheimer’s. For both groups it allows the individual a non-verbal way to express themselves. Ruth Abraham is an art therapist who has written a text called   When Words Have Lost Their Meaning: Alzheimer’s Patients Communicate Through Art that includes drawings by Alzheimer’s patients and delves into a discussion of the importance of the art in their ability to remember and express themselves. If you are a caregiver, Susan Buchalter has an excellent how to guide called Art Therapy and Creative Coping Techniques for Older Adults that will walk you through getting started.  She gives careful instructions about how to work with an older person so the experience is positive for you both. However, teaching skills and how-to texts are not necessary to successfully implement art therapy.

The new rage in art therapy and stress management is adult coloring books. There is an almost meditative process involved in coloring. Interestingly, most adult coloring books do not have a traditional picture like a child’s coloring book.  They tend to have patterns or mandalas.  Our brains have been repeatedly told that a sun is yellow and water is blue.  Children are often still free enough to color a sun blue, water pink, and an elephant green, but for many adults straying from “the rules” can be very stressful.  We tend to fight our preconceived notions and are not as able to unwind with a traditional picture. Hence, adult coloring books often simply have patterns, so the creative outlet can take over and allow the mind a moment to relax because there is not a right or wrong answer. There are some beautiful adult coloring books and very nice colored pencils and markers on the market. However, expensive supplies are not necessary.  There are many mandalas you can print off the internet and you can also find these books and coloring supplies at one of the stores where everything inside is $1.  I have encouraged patients who were anxious about flying to bring one with them on the airplane.  They reported that the intricate patterns gave their minds another place to be focused and helped to pass the time more quickly. If you have a family member who gets anxious in certain environments, having something to color may help their anxiety, especially if you color also. It will allow you to connect in a non-verbal fashion.

While most forms of art can be very relaxing, here are a few of my favorites that are more forgiving for those adults who struggle with the notion that every project ought to be museum worthy.


This can be as simple as grabbing a magazine and cutting out pictures that represent things that intrigue you or are colors or patterns you are drawn to. Then, once you have a large pile of pictures, the next step is simply gluing them onto paper. They can be layered or randomly placed. You can simply create a collection of your favorite things or something that makes you happy. If you want to be more intentional, you can create a picture using the colors and textures in the magazine clippings you have gathered. There are several great examples on Pinterest, but here is a sample one of my children created.


Wiki sticks

These bendable children’s toys are wonderful when you need something to do with your hands. I often have encouraged patients who were trying to stop smoking or lose weight to keep them on hand in their car, purse, desk at work, etc.  They provide you something to manipulate with your hands for moments of stress or anxiety. They are small and easy to keep in your purse or glove box, don’t require other supplies or much clean up, and can be used again and again.  They are also wonderful for use with children, so they can even provide children or grandchildren a means to interact with an older adult. You will be amazed at what their little minds create.


Play dough or Cloud dough

The manipulation of play dough or cloud dough is another textural option for stress management. For some people, the rolling of small balls of dough can be extremely calming. For others it may be making snakes, and yet others may craft an entire scene. The point again is to just allow your hands to manipulate the dough and allow whatever comes out to happen.  Try not to approach it with a preconceived idea of what you should make, and just allow your hands to explore working with the dough.


Marker watercolors

This is one of my favorite activities. You need coffee filters, kids’ markers, and a squirt bottle of water. Simply color all over a white coffee filter in any crazy lines or pattern you want.  The more vivid colors you choose, the better. Once you have the filter all colored, take it outside or put it on a cookie sheet and squirt it with water.  The colors will start to run or bleed into each other.  Once the lines you drew are gone and a stained glass effect is present, you can leave it on a counter overnight or in the sun to dry.  The end results are often quite beautiful, but again the focus is on the process and not the product.



Coffee filters are my medium of choice for making snowflakes. Simply fold it in half and in half again either three or four times. Then grab some scissors and cut small shapes into the side with the thick single folded edge.  Open up to reveal your design, and feel free to fold it back up and add more cuts.  The beauty of using coffee filters is they are inexpensive and available at most grocery stores, so they are an easy choice when you find yourself in need of some art therapy but without supplies.  A simple pair of children’s scissors and a sleeve of coffee filters will provide you with hours of relaxation.


Shaving cream painting

This is truly a simple as it sounds. Squirt a big dollop of shaving cream onto a paper plate or cookie sheet and move your fingers through it.  You can try to create an image in the shaving cream, draw numbers or letters with your finger, or simply rub and squish it around and enjoy the texture.

Whether you are a perfectionist and prefer things in neat lines, or are a free spirit who loves to explore the idea of fluidity and motion, there are artistic mediums that can be freeing for your personality. I encourage you to explore using art to calm your mind and body. Please consider trying some of the methods I discussed or simply grab a piece of paper and a pencil and start doodling.  If you have a family member who is aging, especially one experiencing cognitive decline, art therapy may be a great way for you to connect with them. Remember the wisdom of your favorite preschool teacher as you get started… it is about the process and not the product.

Written by Marci L. Hardy, PhD

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