A Primal Look at Art Therapy

PaintbrushesA few years ago as I was beginning to get a vision for what would become The Primal Connection, I was exploring the idea of vitality from new angles. I was interested in what lay beyond the basics for human survival: nutrition, movement and fitness, sleep, stress and sun. I wanted to examine the connections between our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ lifestyles (what we can reasonably determine and presume) and the existing (if somewhat marginal) activities and therapies that appeared to show therapeutic benefit in scientific studies. I talked about bibliotherapy, writing therapy, music therapy as well as other more enigmatic but relevant topics like silence, solitude, ritual and retreat. What could be gleaned from the research (and a bit of Primal philosophizing) for further refining the good life – the deeper sense of well-being that accesses and actualizes the many facets of our evolutionarily fashioned humanity? In the midst of my recent blogging forays into vegetable recommendations, gentle cooking, pollution mitigation and resistant starch, I’ve been thinking lately about those past explorations. Truth be told, looking into those areas influenced my life at the time. I’m one to write about what I live – or at very least try what I write about….

Recently, another one of those intriguing intersections between evolutionary activity and modern creative therapy has been on my mind. It’s one of those situations where you encounter something and suddenly you keep running into it. A friend’s mother is in hospice care and has her best days during the art therapist’s visits. A work associate talked about doing art therapy before the birth of her second child to release lingering tension from a traumatic first childbirth. Another friend’s child does art therapy in counseling sessions around family transition. I run into articles about art therapy for recent combat veterans and for women with breast cancer. It makes me stop and wonder. What is it about art that gets to the depths of our experience – often when other “normal” approaches fail? And what does (or should) this mean for everyday Primal life?

As the earlier examples suggest, art therapy has been applied to conditions as vastly various as eating disorders, autism, cardiovascular disease, cancer, brain injury (PDF), PTSD, pain management, anxiety and palliative care. From a medical standpoint, most agree that solid research of any significant scope is limited thus far. Yet as one study author writes (PDF), art related therapies “contribute significantly to the humanization and comfort of modern health care institutions by relieving stress, anxiety, and pain of patients and caregivers.” When you compare modern health care to what we likely evolved with in traditional shamanism or something akin to it, it’s no wonder that these auxiliary, “humanizing” therapies are so critical. We too often think we can separate medical acts from our human experience. We’re naturally (and appropriately) more sensitive to this with children’s experiences, but I think it applies to all of us. Yet, there’s something more universal to art therapy’s relevance. Beyond its use for medical issues, art therapy has also been demonstrated as effective for the mental health purposes of severe job burnout and severe stress. What’s at the root of this “alternate language” for processing pain and experience?

We know humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years. The oldest discovered cave paintings in Cantabria, Spain, date back to approximately 40,000 years ago. Shell beads found in eastern Morocco believed to have been for ornamentation are estimated at 82,000 years old. It boggles the mind to think of what existed when we see the traces that still exist today. Creativity was an immensely critical leap cognitively speaking for the human species. The symbolic and representational opened up whole new possibilities for communication and record keeping. More importantly, however, the creative representational capacity undoubtedly changed the way we perceived and interacted with the world as we developed the potential for mental modeling. It gave us a new means to engage material experimentation, social interaction – and personal introspection. We had the means to understand our own humanity and reflect on our experience through various expressive means – including but not limited to language.

When we look at creativity this way, it’s clear we’re not just talking about visual art or formal art therapy activities. There’s something uniquely and deeply human about creative expression of many kinds. With visual art, you might say, it’s a means of expression that doesn’t require linguistic engagement or even ability. It can engage multiple brain areas from memory to sensory to emotional centers to visual processing system. Yet, it’s perhaps simultaneously the simplest and richest means for emotional exploration. On that note…it’s rare for a research summary to elicit much feeling (and I’ve read thousands), but I stumbled upon this gem as I was digging for today’s blog. I’ve been hooked ever since. “Feeling effective as a young person depends on a capacity to draw upon one’s own resources in the service of healthy living and development. In adolescent health care, there is the need to call upon the talents and creativity of young people, to introduce new and exciting experiences, and to facilitate involvement in their own care in order to nurture optimal growth and development on a physical and psychological level.”

Now go back and read that using “human” and “people” in place of “adolescents”. Like this… Feeling effective as a human depends on the capacity to draw upon one’s own resources in the service of healthy living and development. In health care [and cultivating well-being], there’s a need to call upon the talents and creativity of people, to introduce new and exciting experiences, and to facilitate involvement in their own care in order to nurture optimal growth and development on a physical and psychological level. I think it makes perfect sense.

But why, then, do we relegate the importance of creative expression to illness and/or childhood/adolescence? Sure, as children there was room for exploration and experimentation in a day. There was time for expression just for the fun of it. Expression for the sake of play or self-discovery doesn’t have much of a role in our society beyond the age of 14. Unless we work in a particularly creative field, it just doesn’t figure in. The ordained, accepted use of art for adults is within a medicalized, therapy context. While I’m convinced of its therapeutic benefit, I wonder if creative expression is part of a larger force or longing within our innate humanity.

Let me pose this question: if art therapy (and other creative therapies) can make a substantive, measurable difference for people experiencing significant pain, hardship or disability, what power could it have within everyday life for how we cope with everyday stresses and conflicts, how we process the immense amount of emotional, social and intellectual information we take in, how we situate ourselves in the scope of our own life stories? Could we potentially be happier or better adjusted if we “indulged” in expressive arts (in our own personal ways) as a regular part of life? In this scenario particularly, it’s hardly a matter of life and death, but as I’ve said many times, my goal isn’t satisfactory survival. I prefer to thrive, and I’m good with doing whatever I think makes sense to get me there.

For me, I think this means appreciating the art of others around me, building the occasional furnishing and taking an active role in the design for my books as well as writing. Expression in this way acts as a mirror for what I might not otherwise see – nuances about myself, about the nature of health and vitality, about the meaning of Primal life – all that good stuff. When I take the time, I enjoy the flow of the process. For the biggest and most personal creative challenges, however, it’s even more than that. I’m taken in by it. The work itself opens up a path to follow. I move along its twists and turns having discovered dimensions of thought and self exploration inaccessible by any other route. In those moments I have the sense that it’s more than a creative experiment but something of a Primal imperative for the good life as I’d like to live it.

Intrigued? Curious? Interested in doing a little exploration yourself? Try out some visual journaling prompts or check out what one art therapy practitioner offers as the “Ten Coolest Art Therapy Interventions.”

Let me know your thoughts. Have you ever worked with an art therapist or in a setting where art was used for therapeutic purposes? Would you? Share your feedback, and thanks for reading, everybody.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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45 thoughts on “A Primal Look at Art Therapy”

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  1. Ever tried to paint your dreams?

    And what a pleasure it is to doodle with your child. Seeing the world through their eyes in art is renewing to an adult soul. And the stories that can come out of it – priceless.

    1. What an interesting idea. I’ve always struggled to think of subject matter, but this is genius.

      1. 🙂

        Have you heard of lucid dreaming? Imagine being able to direct your dreams. You want to fly? You can fly.

  2. Great stuff, I began studying music and learning guitar a few years ago and it has definitely had a positive impact on my sense of well-being and fulfillment. It was something I was missing, I just didn’t know I was missing it!

  3. “When we look at creativity this way, it’s clear we’re not just talking about visual art or formal art therapy activities. There’s something uniquely and deeply human about creative expression of many kinds”

    ^I think this is key. It’s been a long time since I’ve done art of any kind and even music has taken a back seat for me recently, but I think the important thing is engaging in ANY form of self-expression (even if it’s not what you’d traditionally refer to as a creative endeavor).


  4. Nothing a like a good creativity session to help stimulate positive endorphins. We exercise physically and focus often on our weak muscles, why not exercise multiple parts of our brain as well.

  5. I wondered if art has been put down in society so much that one needs to add “therapy” to make it sound worth while for adults. I don’t know if I buy into the idea that I need a therapist to increase the use of my creative endeavors, I’d sooner just go to a dance/writing/music/etc teacher, but I believe that art has therapeutic use.

  6. I have a degree in visual art, and I occasionally get asked why I’m not “working in my field” or why I haven’t painted in years. I believe that that I use my creativity everywhere, in the kitchen, in the home, in my blog, etc. I don’t have to make money with my creativity for it to be worthwhile. 🙂

  7. I have a journal and a pack of crayons beside my couch and will doodle sometimes when I am stressed. It’s worked so well that I have crayons and a journal in my desk at work and will use it to help off-load stress. It works great, is cheap and never ceases to impress me as to how much better I feel afterward.

  8. I suspect crafting of any kind comes into play (pun intended) here. Whether it’s woodworking, scrapbooking, sewing, painting/drawing, cartooning, or my personal favorite, crocheting, it’s an expression of self. “I made this”.

    My creativity goes into making items for charity, so it’s a double win. I get to play with yarn and patterns, and babies in the community get afghans, sweaters, caps, mittens and booties to stay warm with.

    It feeds my soul, which needs nourishment just as much as my body does.

  9. I’m not artistic in the traditional sense of painting or drawing, but I really do enjoy the process of doing it. Although the paintings I’ve done look really childish I do enjoy the process.

    There’s something about the creative process that is soothing. I think it is the sense of accomplishment – “wow I made this!”

    When I’m having a stressful day, I look forward to cooking, it’s something I good at, and allows me to have those same feelings of accomplishment – “wow I made this amazing meal.”

    I have had an art project on the back burner for months now, might be the push I need to start it! Interesting read today.

  10. I’m doing an increasing amount of jewellery making and sewing, as I always seem to be happier when I’ve finished a project and can look at it and say ‘I did that!’ But finishing a project also means I get to plan the next one… and they’re getting increasingly elaborate!

    1. I’m with you! Getting my Huskylock to complement the Husqvarna Viking was such a thrill and it doesn’t get much better as far as sewing goes 🙂 And knitting things for my daughter is so rewarding, she’s excited and I get to say what you said – “I made that!”

  11. I’ve never been very artistic, but I’m a natural at music. As a kid, I was too hard myself to make my art look good and I could never do that. As an adult, I’m completely in love with color! Butterscotch yellows in my foyer, bedroom and dining room, pumpkin orange in my kitchen and half bath, spring green in my dining room and candy apple red in my mud room (to match my washer and dryer). Some people think it’s too color-blocky, but the yellow/orange colors are warm and cozy and remind me warm days, sunsets, campfires, harvest time and snuggling up with a book. Spring green reminds me of being outdoors and of the first vegetables of spring and it calms me, great for unwinding at dinner.
    My clothing is never these colors. I tend to love deep dramatic clothing color, especially burnt red to wine, violet, deep teal blue to navy, pine green (to match my eyes), and black and white, though I also love various shades of brown.

    A few years ago I found a website that enables you to create your own color palette based on similar depth, hue, etc. Have you noticed that a lot of tv shows are now painting room sets with bold color? It adds depth to the whole visual experience.

  12. My grandmother was an artist, I am an artist, my daughter is also and my son is a wood worker and creates beautiful furniture. I haven’t done a portrait in many years, too busy with work and family I guess. This post reminded me how much I miss it…and need it,

    Thanks Mark

  13. Perfect timing, Mark! I have a load of pottery in the kiln today. Making things that are both attractive and useful is so satisfying, and working with earth and fire feels pretty primal.

  14. My son had a different set of parents for his first year and a half, as a result of his experiences early in life he has trouble with stress now. He uses art when he’s in school (in my opinion) to help manage his stress while he’s there. Sadly his teachers don’t see it as stress management but as goofing off, disobedience or disrespect. At least he as an art friendly house with us, along with parents who both encourage him to do his art and clean it up so we can actually use the table, couch, floor, etc.

  15. Everyone is an artist of one kind or another.

    At some (relatively recent) point in history, the concepts of “art” and “artist” were separated from our daily lives. One had to meet certain formal criteria to be considered an “artist”. This deters many people from trying their hand at painting, sculpting, woodworking, etc., because they think they’re no good at it. Nonsense! Nobody has to see or critique your work; you create it for yourself.

    I find terms such as “art therapy” and “music therapy” funny. Most activities in which human beings engage can be considered therapy. How about cooking therapy, gardening therapy, drumming therapy, dog-walking therapy, origami therapy……..

  16. I think it is way more than ‘art’. We, at our core, are creators. After all we create everything in our lives…..everything. It is this expression of creativity that is vital to who we are. It can be music, carpentry, bricklaying, dog training, growing a garden, or knitting a sweater, it is all an expression of our innate creativity. When we stop being creative, we stop living.

  17. I’m an artist professionally and sometimes it is therapy, and sometimes art is stressful and I’ll have to fight with a piece before I can get it to the point where I like it. But there is a feeling of accomplishment when a piece finally does get there.

  18. art is certainly chicken soup for the soul. Im not so sure “art therapy” is the type of thing we should be self prescribing. If there isn’t an MD it doesn’t count as “Therapy”, right? That doesn’t mean “art” shouldn’t be engaged as often as possible.
    everyone should keep a sketchbook (or “gearnal”) and progressing from front to back, through time, pages should get marked up with the energy of the days events. words will suffice, but keep your mind open to the possibilities.
    interesting direction Mark. I honestly expected a challenge or an assignment at the end of this one.

  19. This is no surprise at all. After being knee deep in scientific talk all day with patients it is extremely helpful for me to play guitar or do some photo/video work to escape and use up all avenues of my brain!

  20. Taoist internal cultivation recognises the importance of art as a way to balance. Calligraphy and painting are as intrinsic as qigong and taiji practices. And they’ve known this for 1000s of years.

  21. This really rings true for me right now. When I was younger I was involved in many “home crafts”. I sewed my children’s clothes, I knitted and crocheted, I made quilts and did cross stitch and embroidery. Later I started to scrap book. I even took up a part time job in a scrapbook store to support my habit! Gradually I stopped doing all those things. A friend reminded me that when she was feeling depressed it was crafting that helped lift her spirits. I recently started knitting again and it made me feel so good to complete a project and say “I did that”. I even got a chance to wear what I made because it was so cold here.

  22. Being more creative and exploring art is something I really want to do more of. Thanks for your post. It helps me keep some momentum in this direction.

    My wife and daughter are wonderfully artistic and creative, but I think I have some sort of limiting belief that I’m no good at it. It’s not true, but it holds me back.

    Thanks for giving me a nudge.

  23. I cannot draw or paint to save my life, but I do embroidery, knit and crochet, and I feel so much more relaxed after doing it… to my mind that is art in another way as I am creating an object, and in most cases a really beautiful object. I also think that cooking is “art” as well.
    I have just realised that I need to knit more!

  24. I started thinking about the different hobbies I’ve picked up over the years. I never thought of them as theraputic, but I know now that they all were, from the time I learned to hook a potholder in second grade. Music is the underlying theme, though. Where (who) would I be without my therapies!

  25. As a third generation professional artist and educator, I would like to mention that as a therapy it can be fantastic, but must be approached in a non-aspirational manner to get the deepest benefits.
    In paleolithic times, except for tribal competition, the shamanic discovery process was the goal and the existing portal well tended. Now, the very notion of art is so encrusted with ideas like: stardom, genius, romance, stories of addiction lifestyles, failure and success in the world and as persons, so that simply making art for fun and discovery is not so simple anymore.
    As soon as you get those $ signs in your sights or covet prizes/reputation, and you can bet your neighbors will have their say in that- it’s a whole different ball game and maybe not what you need.
    Living creatively need not mean making stuff, it can be living every moment awake and finding richness things like movement, breathing, or simply appreciating what comes before you as it is.
    If you feel compelled to create out of materials, just let go and slide discreetly and unencumbered through that portal to reap the most rewards. Skill and inventiveness will follow eventually, but don’t get bent out of shape trying as that would defeat the purpose of art as therapy.

  26. The Samurai used to practice various arts as a contrast to the ugliness of combat – now it’s being used in the treatment of PTSD in combat veterans. The wisdom of the past should never be discounted!

  27. As a veteran of the Iraq war, amedical professional, and an artist, I can help attest to a couple of the major reasons that art works as therapy.

    The first is obviously expression. By offering an outlet for various emotions that we as humans may have never learned words for, or may have (as is often the case of many men) have learned that such emotions are shameful. Emotions like guilt and uncertainty and fear, often occur in us at the same time as love and hope and joy, and we have difficulty reconciling those things that to our language-centered “left” brains make no sense in co-context.

    The second reason that art works as therapy, is that it trains people to cross the brain barrier out of language and logic and into relationships and perceptions. Particularly in the case of trauma, the left and right hemispheres of the brain get out of alignment. One of the major symptoms of combat PTSD is a person having an inappropriately over-emotional reaction to a simple problem, or conversely, having “no feelings” at all about other things, like relationships. This is because trauma trains the brain to respond to trauma, to be ready to react on the slightest stimulus, and to remain calm and cool-headed in the face of horror. Those skills equip a person perfectly for an environment of constant vigilance and violence. They also reflect a brain that has realigned the right hemisphere so that emotional responses to external stimuli correspond to different logical responses in the left brain. Since the left brain is dominant in most of our lives dictating language and rationality and appropriate cultural conditioning, the relational, emotional, irrational, creative side of the brain gets weakened a little, and responses are just that, responses.

    The problem is that we train our soldiers for months to prepare for combat, but we never UNTRAIN them to prepare for civilian life. So in a civilian, a stimulus that has a logical response A will have an emotional response A. but a soldier has trained themselves to respond with emotion B instead. Art can provide that retraining.

    Practicing art forces a person to walk back and forth across both sides of the brain, and brings the right side into the dominant role. In the same way that Cognitive behavioral therapy allows a person to take control of their thoughts and thereby their emotions, Art therapy allows a person to take control of their emotions, to explore them, and sit in them and get to know them and get comfortable with them. That way, they can choose how to respond to them. that choice is empowering from both directions. if you control what you think, it controls how you feel, and if you understand how you feel (even if you have no words for it) you can choose how to react.

    Art like EMDR, can also break up and reassign the myelin pathways in the brain. Myelin is the substance that allows any kind of learning to take place. It wraps around the neurons on pathways that are frequently used. The more you do something, the easier it gets to do it. The same is true of language, sports, anger, or a musical instrument. if you do it often enough, your brain starts to do it automatically. That’s what myelin is: the automizer.

    1. Wonderful exposure to what happens to veterans. As a medical professional, I sure hope your voice is heard and that you can be (or have already been) an influence in appropriate circles to get veterans the assistance and attention they deserve!

  28. My garden is my yearly project.
    It just keeps growing and makes me happy, not to mention keeping me healthy.

  29. I recently rediscovered the joy in doing something besides writing science- or regulatory-based documents for my job or writing chapter summaries for a science course. A friend of mine, an artist, encouraged me to relive those childhood experiences of taking the time to stop and draw. I’m no artist, but it quieted my mind enough to make me relaxed. Earlier this week, another friend of mine, bartender and violinist, brought me a (spare) harmonica that she had because I revealed that I have long thought that “if I pick up an instrument,” a harmonica is one of a select few instruments that I find cool and fascinating that I’d be interested in playing. I’m quite interested to see what I can do with it!! Definitely feel creative expression through the arts can be beneficial. A timely post, Mark!

    1. Don’t ever call yourself “not an artist.” Like anything, it takes lots of practice and a good teacher. Mark says that we should never call ourselves “not an athlete” but to search for the type of athlete we can and want to be. The same is true of art. You can teach anyone how to draw. The trick is learning to turn off what your brain knows about the world and record only exactly what you see, in relation to everything around it. Some people are naturally good at this, true, just like some people are naturally good at jumping or running or climbing. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us cannot run or jump or climb. Maybe it just takes us longer, until we practice and learn how to perform better.
      Saying “I’m no artist” is like saying, “I don’t look at the world around me” or “I don’t really care about beauty”.
      Sure, you didn’t mean it that way. I know. But grokking is about changing our perspective on a lot of things. Art should be one of those things. Ithe need to express it is part of human kind, ingrained in our nature since long before we possessed a written alphabet. Art is very primal.

      1. Well said! And thank you for the kick in the perspective! I am a novice, yet aspiring artist!

  30. Yes to this post. In recovery from an eating disorder and anxiety disorder I’ve found painting to be so wonderful, even though I’m terrible at it..something about creating color with our hands

  31. I’m currently a police officer but do magic shows on the side. I’ve always said, if I could go full-time, I’d perform. Mostly because when it’s all said and done, I can step back and see that I’ve created something worthwhile. If I couldn’t do that, I’d go back and be a carpenter so when people were awed by a building or cabinets or furniture, I could know I’ve influenced someone in a great way

  32. Art therapy is great because it helps to pul together the global side of the right brain hemisphere and the analytical and component driven left hemisphere. It helps to unify us which relaxes and helps tune us into the universe.

  33. As an artist and an author, creating is an integral part of my life. It is a daily process for me to create in multiple forms. That said, when I am dealing with stress or frustration, and even when I experienced times of grief or depression, it becomes a vital part of my life, my lifeblood, my breath.
    The action of expressing myself during these times through whatever modality I have chosen, allows me to purge myself of my issues. I feel the shift within minutes, transforming me back to a place of joy or at least acceptance.

    In the past, there were a few times when I closed myself away temporarily from creating anything artistically. For me personally, closing down resulted with me coming down with colds, viruses, etc. that pulled me deeper into the abyss. The rope to climb out was simple … I had to create to cleanse myself.

    I keep boxes of Crayolas and canisters of playdough in my studio, because there are times when I simply want to play. (Especially if the weather is bad and I can’t go play in the dirt). This weekend, as I struggled to come to a decision about something, I found myself cutting giant snowflakes out of oversized coffee filters. It allowed me to step away from the problem and bring myself back to where I needed to be.

    I believe it is extremely important for everyone to realize that art takes on many, many forms and it can all be therapeutic ….. sometimes even the simplest thing can be the most powerful.

  34. As a former preschool teacher I often had to remind parents that the “process” of making art is more important than the end product. Aside from all the physiological benefits, I think art making can take us to another place….a place of beauty. We may not achieve that in every attempt but it is part of being a human to strive for expression of our inner selves. As in life…it is the journey that matters.

  35. I’ve been a practicing art therapist for 15 years and see all the time how the process of art making brings people closer to their truth. If you are looking for an easy way to start making art – check out my book – Square the Circle: art therapy workbook.