Art Therapy: Does Getting Creative Impact Asthma?

On inspiration of a friend, I’ve been exploring art more in the last year or so. I started a couple years ago with that whole adult coloring thing that’s exploded, although I did use to color regularly with the kiddos at work when I worked in daycare in 2009 and from 2011 to 2013, which became mildly stressful—mostly joking—when they apparently decided I can draw, and then they ALWAYS wanted pictures drawn for them. Fortunately, my friend also got hired and she’s a super talented artist so she took that over mostly ;). (Thanks, D!)

What is art therapy?

When children are pushing you to the limits of your artistic abilities (which are somewhat few), art becomes less fun. When, however, you are doing art for you, yourself, and you (and maybe to show your nice friends on the internet), though—as enforced by the adult coloring flashmob—it is supposed to be calming and relaxing and de-stressing. Therapeutic, even.

These are things that we could all probably benefit from, because even at the back of your mind, asthma can kind of reduce the calm and relaxation in life a bit and add some stress. This is where art therapy comes in.

Art therapy is intended to help participants come to discoveries about their own thought processes on their own, with guidance from the therapist—the art created is not to be interpreted in itself, but rather it is created for the purpose of self-awareness.1

How can art therapy help people with asthma?

Few studies have been conducted specifically regarding the effects of art therapy in people with asthma. In one study where children participated in art therapy for an hour a week for eight weeks, specifically focused on exploring what burdens of disease children experienced from asthma.2 While the children’s asthma severity or level of control did not change, compared to a control group who did not receive art therapy, the kids in the study experienced an improvement in problem-solving and affect (emotions), decreased worry, increased communication scores, and improved quality of life, and decreased anxiety and self-concept (how we see and define our own selves).2,3

Unfortunately, no adult-focused studies for asthma specifically have been completed—here’s what we know about the effects of art therapy on adults in general:

  • Art therapy can more gently guide participants through unpleasant memories, helping to process harsh emotions more gently.4 The discussion with the therapist after creating focuses on the experience of creating the art and the feelings associated with that process, and then gradually taking those memories back with the participant to what difficulty or trauma was experienced that is causing the emotional pain.
  • In studies with older adult populations, communication skills were increased (nonverbal participants with dementia communicated with changes in facial expressions, decreased depression and feelings of isolation (common feelings when dealing with a chronic disease, like asthma).5
  • Art therapy leads to, generally, increased confidence, self-efficacy, positive—or elevated—mood, and “authentic expression”.6
  • People with asthma experience an increased prevalence of anxiety and depression than people without asthma. These feelings combined with respiratory issues can make people feel as if they are not in control of their circumstances. Many things are not controllable, but increased control can be perceived by being part of creating something that you are 100% in control over—art.6 This process can lead to the recognition of what can be controlled in life, and what choices we do have.

Should I consider it?

I have yet to in my life do any formal sort of art therapy, though I think I’d like to explore it at some point. The creative process is not something I default to when I’m feeling stressed, though—like exercise—I’ve tried to make a point to throw my feelings into colors and paper when words are escaping me (frustrating to deal with as a writer!).

Does art therapy impact asthma? Well, yes and no. It won’t make you breathe any better, but, it can certainly help in dealing with the emotional weight that asthma can have.

And, remember: you don’t have to be an artist, nor do you have to go see an art therapist, to create and benefit from the process of creating something. I’ve found that when I pick up some pencil crayons, markers, or a $3 pack of oil pastels and put them to paper, I do feel like I've been able to clear my head. And, sometimes taking a step back by diving into doing something out of my comfort zone—something that is all about me, all for me—is just what I need to get back to what matters: focusing on right now, and not getting stuck on what’s happened or what’s to come.

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