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Finding OCD Relief Through Art Therapy: Is It Effective?

Combining standard OCD treatments (i.e., psychotherapy, medication, natural remedies, etc.) with art (i.e., drawing, painting, finger-painting, carving, making collages, scribbling or doodling, photography, working with clay, or sculpting) may help ease OCD symptoms. Imagine spending an hour or two painting a visual form of expression – a masterpiece that characterizes who you are or what you believe. What if you could express your frustration, heartbreak, anger, sadness, loneliness, or confusion through a piece of artwork?

In other words, what if art became a form of expression for you? A way to connect with others even through feelings of shame and guilt. What art became your “voice” – a “voice” that could stop the intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors? Is it possible to use art to block out the noise in your brain? Art is much more than simply a pastime or hobby, it can be empowering, uplifting, and freeing. It can also be therapeutic for people who are struggling to “voice” how they feel, what they are going through, and what they believe.

People who feel shut off from the world may also benefit from art therapy. And, OCD sufferers may also benefit from this form of therapy. Art therapy can “quiet” noisy thoughts, reduce your stress and anxiety, and boost your mood. If you are wondering if you can find OCD relief through art therapy, look no more because this blog can help you learn what art therapy is and what it can do for people who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).


OCD? What is That?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common, but debilitating anxiety disorder. Millions of people throughout the world struggle with OCD daily. It typically presents during childhood or adolescence, although it can arise earlier or later than this timeframe. The cause of OCD largely depends on the individual, but common causes include genetics, biology (i.e., hormones), trauma or damaging past experiences, or environmental factors, like toxins. Contrary to popular belief OCD is not a monolith.

In other words, there are many different types of OCD, ranging from reading OCD and meta OCD to relationship OCD and hoarding OCD. OCD is characterized by obsessions and/or compulsions. Although most people assume that a person with OCD has both obsessions and compulsions, that is not always true. It is possible to just have obsessions or compulsions – not both. However, most people do struggle with both obsessions and compulsions.

Because having OCD is embarrassing, most OCD sufferers experience immense shame and guilt for having the condition and not being able to stop it. Because of the shame and guilt associated with the condition, people who have this condition often hide it from others. Unfortunately, OCD can impact all areas of a person’s life, diminishing their quality of life, relationships, job prospects and finances, self-confidence, and health and well-being.

The good news is it can be successfully treated. Although the standard OCD treatment involves therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure-response and prevention (ERP) therapy, and other therapies, like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are also commonly used to treat OCD.

The most common OCD treatment, however, is ERP therapy. When therapy alone is unsuccessful, medication is usually prescribed to treat the condition. The medication is usually added to therapy to encourage better treatment results. The most common medication used to treat OCD is selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are antidepressants approved for depression but also used “off-label” to treat anxiety conditions like OCD.

When both therapy and medication fail to yield the desired results, other methods may be explored. Alternative treatments, like hypnotherapy and art therapy, have the ability to “quiet” the mind and stop urges to engage in compulsive behaviors. Art therapy, in particular, has started to “take off” as a possible treatment for OCD.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy began in the 1940s, however, it was not immediately popular with the general population. It was not until the 1970s that this form of therapy “took off” as a viable counseling method for people with mental health concerns. Art therapy encourages people to use creativity and self-expression as an empowerment tool, and a way to support their mental health. Art therapy, like other expressive alternative therapies (i.e., dance therapy or music therapy), champion creativity. 

Therapists use this tool to help people better process, express, address, understand, and resolve their emotions and thoughts. During art therapy, a person works with an art therapist to examine their thoughts, emotions, belief system, etc. Art therapy also helps these individuals identify the origin of their turmoil or conflicts, so they can find acceptable solutions for them. 

Art therapy is, in essence, a platform for people to express themselves in art rather than verbally. This is especially helpful for children who have experienced trauma, for instance, child abuse or neglect, soldiers who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and people who are struggling with OCD-related intrusive or upsetting thoughts and emotions, and repetitive behaviors. Art therapy provides mentally ill people with a “voice” in a world that tends to “quiet” them.

How Does Art Therapy Work?

Art therapy teaches people how to respond to their issues in a healthier way, and understand their thoughts and emotions better by helping them gain a new perspective on the situation. Researchers suggest that art therapy may be a good way to deal with mental health challenges, however, more research is needed to definitely determine its overall effectiveness. Thus, an art therapist helps you unearth the origin of your emotional distress, by prompting you to create art that addresses the cause of your issue(s). 

During an art therapy session, an art therapist will likely do the following actions:

  • Describe the purpose of art therapy.
  • Set your goals for art therapy. 
  • Explain to you that you do not have to be artistic to reap the benefits of this form of therapy.
  • Help you select a medium for you to work with, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, or photography.
  • Ask questions to guide you through the self-expression process. 
  • Discuss your “work of art,” how you felt about it, the message you were trying to convey through the art, and how you can use what you have learned from the art to help you cope with your emotional distress and issues in a healthy way. 
  • Assign “homework” and schedule another session.

Is Art Therapy Beneficial for OCD?

It could be. 

Because researchers do not fully understand how the brain works, it is impossible to fully understand how art therapy works. However, studies suggest that art therapy can be beneficial for anxiety conditions like OCD. There is mounting evidence that art therapy can help mood disorders like depression, anxiety, trauma, and low self-esteem. Art therapy also appears to be beneficial for people with life-threatening health conditions, like cancer, and hospitalized people who are in immense pain. 

This form of therapy has also been used to help people, including prisoners, develop healthy coping skills. Limited research suggests that art therapy can be especially beneficial for people suffering from PTSD. But because art therapy has only increased in popularity, there are not many studies on its OCD treatment benefits. Still, the results of the present studies are promising. 

Art therapy can also be beneficial in the following ways:

  • Increased self-awareness
  • Fewer instances of emotional distress
  • A stronger emotional resilience
  • Enhanced memory and cognitive function

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What Does The Research Say?

Although art therapy has not been extensively researched so there is not a lot of evidence of its overall effectiveness in the treatment of OCD. Still, researchers suggest that art therapy, like painting, drawing, and sculpting, may ease chronic stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms – common contributors to the development and progression of OCD.

According to a 2020 review, approximately 50% of OCD sufferers will eventually be diagnosed with major depression at some point in their lives. Researchers also found that more than 75% of people with OCD will eventually be diagnosed with another anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, specific phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or social anxiety.

Is Art Therapy Harmful For OCD Sufferers?

Art therapy is rarely harmful, and its “harm” pales in comparison to antidepressants and some psychotherapies. Still, this form of therapy, like other forms of therapy, can cause harm in some cases. 

Listed below are some negative effects that can arise from art therapy: 

  • Increased stress or anxiety
  • The resurfacing of emotions without the proper processing of them
  • An inability to cope or a return to previous behaviors should therapy be terminated abruptly
  • Flashbacks of traumatic experiences can occur

If you are unable to fully address your issues or concerns during art therapy, then it has failed. More specifically, when art therapy has failed or is ineffective, it can increase your emotional distress causing your OCD symptoms to return at full force.

If you were traumatized by this form of therapy or if you feel like you wasted your time doing it, you may be reluctant to try other better-suited forms of therapy to address your OCD. Some people who want to try art therapy for their OCD symptoms neglect to do so because they mistakenly believe that they must be “artistic” to benefit from it. That is untrue.

The worst thing you can do is to think of art therapy as an “arts and crafts” project because it is so much more. It is a therapeutic tool designed to help people process and understand their thoughts, fears, feelings, etc. When people think of this form of therapy as a “craft” it takes away its significance. It becomes a hobby instead of a therapy technique. When this occurs, the therapy process goes awry and its benefits are lost.

Can Art Therapy for OCD Be Done At Home?

Yes, some forms of art therapy can be done at home – as long as you are not suffering from severe OCD.

One of the best things about art therapy is it can be done just about anywhere, even at home. Although licensed art therapists have more tools, techniques, and methods, if you are unable to find an art therapist, want to try out art therapy at home before committing to art therapy sessions, or do not feel comfortable seeing an art therapist, you can practice it at home and still reap some benefits from it. 

Keep in mind, however, that certain materials or colors of paint, clay, pens, markers, etc., may trigger or worsen your OCD symptoms. If this occurs, stop what you are doing and contact your doctor or schedule an appointment with a licensed art therapist or psychologist.

You can find a trained and licensed art therapist in the following places: 

  • Private practices
  • Schools (i.e., elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges and universities)
  • Hospitals
  • OCD rehab centers
  • Mental health clinics
  • Therapist directories

What is It Like To Get Art Therapy for OCD?

The best way to determine if art therapy could be a possible OCD treatment for you is to read real reviews from people who have used art therapy to cope with their OCD symptoms.

Below are people who have used art or art therapy to cope with their OCD: 

  • “I find adult coloring books helpful. Sometimes they help me forget and zone out, so to speak. I’ve even found myself drooling a couple of times because I’ve gotten so invested. I was taken aback when that happened because I don’t normally…ever…drool. Then I started worrying about the lines bleeding from one page to another (putting pressure on one page would sometimes cause part of the back page to imprint on the one beside it), smudging, etc. and it made it less enjoyable. I still sometimes do it but regret all the money I spent on lots of different books and pencil crayons. Markers too.”
  • “I’ve almost completely stopped doing art because I can’t stand it when it’s not perfect or good enough and mine never is. I’ll spend forever editing things and redrawing and reworking and it makes me incredibly anxious and upset. I hate showing my art to other people since I never feel like it’s good enough.

    This year I decided to make Christmas cards. I wanted to try to make small, simple art that doesn’t really matter if it’s not good or perfect. Kind of a mini experiment to fight my OCD. I made them with watercolor too which I don’t really have experience in, but I was just trying not to care too much about the outcome anyway. I tried not to obsess over them and take hours doing them. I finished them as quickly as I could and sealed them in envelopes. I didn’t take pictures when I was done so I couldn’t obsess over everything that I should have added to make it look better.

    My stepmom liked the card that I did so much that she framed it and posted it online. I’m glad she liked it but I honestly hated seeing it again. It starts with the thoughts of “it doesn’t have enough definition”, “it’s way too flat”, “I should have added this, this, and this to make it look better”, and “oh god it looks like a little kid did it”. I feel like I took one baby step forward just to take three huge steps backward.”

  • “One of the best things about art therapy is that you can do it any way you want. The self-portraits, drawing my triggers, and just plain ‘kicking back,’ and sketching whatever has been extremely beneficial for me and my OCD. Art has been both cathartic and therapeutic for me.”

Final Thoughts

Art Therapy has been around for a while, however, people did not start to see the benefit of it until much later. Now, art therapy is emerging as a viable and effective treatment for mental health conditions like OCD. Art therapy allows OCD sufferers to tell their “story” (i.e., experiences) in their own way and on their own terms. Art provides a “voice” for a group of people who tend to stay in the shadows – unheard and unseen.

It is also a good way to look at issues and a situation in a different way – devoid of overwhelming emotions. Channeling the energy spent on obsessions and compulsions into art can be a game changer for many OCD sufferers. It does not matter if you cannot make it to art therapy sessions, you can still find catharsis from it in the comfort of your home. Art therapy can be used alone or combined with other OCD treatments like Impulse Therapy, an online OCD recovery treatment program. So, is art therapy effective? It depends. But you will not know if you do not give it a go! 


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DR. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham has a B.A. in English, an M.M.F.T in Marriage and Family Therapy (Psychology), and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She is currently a medical, health & wellness contributor, copywriter, and psychological consultant

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