Drawing, Art Therapy, and Stress Relief

What Research Says About Drawing Pictures for Stress Relief

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Art therapy has been widely practiced for many, many years, both formally in a therapeutic context, and informally among those who simply feel better when they draw. Decades ago, psychologist Carl Jung recommended coloring mandalas (circular designs that can contain intricate patterns or symbols) as a therapeutic intervention to promote psychological health, as he perceived that drawing mandalas had a calming effect on his patients while facilitating their processing of thoughts and emotions.

Since then, art therapists have long recommended this practice and have reported positive results, though these results were not demonstrated by research until later. While there is still room for many more studies on mandalas and drawing, in general, several studies have already shown us some important information about the effectiveness of using art for stress relief. Here are some of the most telling findings.

Creating Art Can Minimize Anxiety and Lift Mood

One study from researchers Chloe Bell and Steven Robbins randomly assigned 50 adults ages 30 and under to either create artwork or sort a series of art prints. Before either group was asked to do anything related to art, they were asked to engage in the mild stressor of creating a 10-item to-do list of their “most pressing concerns and worries,” which was designed to create a mildly negative mood and mild anxiety that the activities could then potentially minimize.

Then, they were given assessments of their moods and anxiety levels. Finally, they were given either paper, colored pencils, charcoal pencils, and oil pastels, as well as 20 minutes to either create art, or a stack of 60 art prints and the instructions to sort them “based on their pictorial content” for the next 20 minutes, depending on which group they were assigned to.

Both of these activities would expose the subjects to art, but only the first group was involved in creative expression.

After three measures of negative mood and anxiety were collected before and after each intervention, the results showed that the group who created artwork experienced significantly greater reductions in negative mood and anxiety compared with the art-sorting group, showing that the mere act of creating art can significantly minimize negative mood and anxiety, some of the negative effects of stress. (If you’re worrying about the subjects being deliberately stressed by thinking about their most pressing concerns for the sake of the study, researchers asked them all to create a list of their 10 most positive or favorite memories before they left, which can be quite helpful in itself.)

Creating Mandalas Can Minimize Symptoms of Trauma

Another study by researchers Patti Henderson and David Rosen from Texas A&M University and Nathan Mascaro from Emory University School of Medicine was conducted with those suffering from PTSD divided 36 subjects into two groups: those who drew mandalas for 20 minutes at a time for three days in a row, and those who were instructed to draw an object for the same period of time.

Those who had drawn mandalas showed a decrease in symptoms of trauma at a one-month follow-up, whereas those who drew an object did not. (It should be noted that other potential differences in the groups were studied, but this was the only difference that was statistically significant; some of these expected changes, such as differences in anxiety levels among those who drew mandalas and those who did not, have been found in similar studies with less traumatized subjects, so it is possible that more mild states of stress can be more easily affected by drawing.)

It should be noted that, in this study, participants were asked to create their own mandalas using symbols that represented their feelings or emotions related to their trauma as part of the design rather than coloring in patterned mandalas that had been previously created, so there might be some added element of catharsis here, but the act of coloring mandalas is similar in that the choice of colors and the calming act of coloring itself are the same.

Coloring Pictures Can Relieve Anxiety—No Drawing Skills Necessary

A final relevant study was conducted by researchers Renee van der Vennet and Susan Serice. In the study, they measured 50 subjects’ anxiety levels, induced anxiety in subjects by asking them to write about a past fearful incident for four minutes, assessed their anxiety levels again, and then divided them into three groups: one that colored mandalas, one that colored a plaid design, and one that drew freely on blank paper. Each group drew for 20 minutes using six colored pencils.

The researchers measured anxiety levels both before and after the drawing activities and found that those who engaged in mandala coloring experienced reduced anxiety levels to a significantly greater degree than did those who drew a plaid design or engaged in free drawing on blank paper. difference between coloring mandalas and drawing a predetermined (plaid) design may lie in the creative choices involved, the beauty of the end product, or something similar. The researchers observed that those in the free-drawing condition seemed to pause to think about what to draw, and some appeared to struggle with the open-endedness of the drawing assignment; perhaps there were too many choices with free drawing, where mandala drawing allowed for more concentration, focus, and present-mindedness. (And sometimes having too many choices can be stressful in itself, even if the choices are relatively insignificant.)

This study is particularly relevant for those who aren’t entirely comfortable with their artistic abilities, but enjoy doodling and coloring (which is a large group!), and lends support for the stress relief coloring books that have become increasingly popular among adults.

Final Thoughts

This is all great news for those wanting to relieve anxiety and stress and lift their mood. If you’ve ever wondered if taking a few minutes to draw a picture can actually help with stress, now you know that it can. (Perhaps that’s why many of us instinctively doodle on the sides of our to-do lists, or why teens often draw pictures in class.) If you’ve wondered if a stress relief coloring book is worth a try (as I had), it appears that they can indeed be helpful, as the mandalas used in the third study were very similar to those in mandala coloring books sold in popular bookstores. Simply creating something you find to be beautiful, or that expresses your emotions can be helpful, so let your inner child loose and get out those colored pencils! Here are some art activities that can relieve stress.


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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