Art Activities for Stress Relief

Art Activities For Stress Relief

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 Studies show that art therapy, coloring mandalas , and drawing in general can minimize anxiety and combat negative mood (these studies are cited on the last page of this article). Most of the studies have people drawing or coloring for about 20 minutes, so it’s really not necessary to be a gifted or serious artist for this stress reliever to be helpful; no artistic ability is required, in fact!  (See this article for more details the research on art therapy and art for stress relief.)  One reason drawing and coloring may be helpful for stress is that the act itself brings us to the present moment—it can be an exercise in mindfulness.  Also, the creation of something beautiful can be soothing and engulfing, as we know from research on gratifications.  There are many ways you can engage in artistic activities to soothe your frazzled nerves, or just to deepen your inner peace and express yourself, and each has its own appeal, based on your personality and needs.   Here are some of the more beneficial ways to go about coloring yourself into a place of peace.

Create Something Beautiful For Stress Relief

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 Some people are deeply talented artists who can create lifelike drawings, amusing cartoons, powerful animae drawings, and other pieces of art with relative ease.  Others struggle to draw stick figures.  When it comes to stress management, the end product doesn’t really matter; it’s the process of creating a piece of art that counts. One study divided slightly stressed subjects into two groups and found that creating a picture (rather than simply looking at and sorting famous pieces of art) relieved anxiety and decreased negative mood.  In this study, they chose between using charcoal pencils, oil pastels, or even regular colored pencils, and the drawings themselves weren’t evaluated, just the anxiety levels and mood of the people after they were done.  So whether you are someone who already enjoys creating art but doesn’t make time for it, or you’re someone who doubts their own artistic ability, let go of results; create something that’s just for you in a drawing journal, a canvas, or whatever you have handy. 

Create Your Own Symbolic Mandala

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 Carl Jung was one of the original proponents for creating mandalas as a therapeutic tool, and a legion of therapists and art enthusiasts have joined in recommending this practice in the decades since.  Mandalas are circular designs that include often intricate patterns and symbols within them. One study found that creating mandalas minimized the symptoms of trauma in PTSD patients a month after patients engaged in this activity three times. Creating a mandala allows you to process some of what you are feeling (if you include symbols that represent what you have been through in your life, triumphs that you have had, challenges you’ve faced, or anything else that is important to you) without getting into the “story” of it, and potentially triggering rumination.  It also allows you to root yourself in the moment as you create a piece of art, and somewhat frees you from concerns about whether the pictures look “good” or even realistic.  Your mandala can look however you want it to look, and it can be rich with meaning or just a bunch of shapes and squiggles that look good to you.  All you need to do is have fun. 

Here is more on how to create a mandala, from Cathy Wong,  an Alternative Medicine expert.

Color A Mandala (There Are Books For This!)

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If creating a mandala sounds like a lot of work, there is an easier way.  If you haven’t noticed them already, there are several mandala coloring books on the market, and they take the necessity to draw out of the equation—you simply choose your colors and create something beautiful the way you did with coloring books when you were a kid!  There is some creativity involved, and a beautiful finished product, but less decision-making is required.  And if you are uncomfortable with your artistic abilities, this couldn’t be easier.  There is also research supporting the simple coloring of mandalas as a stress relief tool: a study of 50 college students found that coloring pre-printed mandalas reduced anxiety in people more than coloring a plaid pattern or drawing a picture. 

Here are some highly recommended mandala coloring books and stress relief coloring books.

Join An Art Class

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 If you have the time for a regular art class, this can be a wonderful option.  One reason is that the social support of a group can be a stress reliever in itself, and a supportive, non-competitive class can be very nurturing.  Another benefit of a class is that it cements the activity into your schedule; you don’t have to work as hard to find time for drawing, because you already have time for it planned into your schedule.  Also, if you are someone who worries about your artistic skill, this can help you to improve your abilities and make that less of a distraction.  However, if an ongoing class is more of a commitment than you have time for, many communities have one-time workshops or evenings where participants enjoy a glass of wine with a standalone art class.  Look into your options, and see what might work best for you.

If All Else Fails...Doodle!

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If you don’t have time for art classes, and a 20-minute drawing session sounds like more than you have time for, you can always embrace your inner doodler.  My mother and I are both people who doodle when we’re left on hold for more than 10 seconds—no nearby scrap of paper is safe!  While I haven't seen research on the stress relief effects of random doodles, there is enough information on drawing and art, in general, to lead me to believe that it can be at least somewhat helpful, and it certainly can't hurt!  You can have a journal just for 5-minute doodles, and keep it somewhere handy.  At night, you can draw quick pictures of hearts, flowers, or ​smiling faces for a minute or two instead of maintaining a journaling practice, or in addition to a gratitude journaling practice—just beautify the margins!  The trick is to let your inner artist come out whenever you have time, and enjoy. 

Here are some other journaling practices that can reduce stress as well.


Bell, Chloe E.; Robbins, Steven J.  (2007). Effect of Art Production on Negative Mood: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, v24 (2), 71-75.

Henderson, P., Rosen, D., Mascaro, N.  (2007). Empirical study on the healing nature of mandalas. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol 1(3), 148-154.

Van der Vennet, R.; Serice, S.  (2012). Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety? A Replication Study. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Vol 29(2), 87-92.

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