Artists across the world have used their work to channel their feelings, but did you know that art can also heal people with anxiety? A study due to published in Arts in Psychotherapy found that integrating art into a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatment resulted in less panic attacks in people with panic disorder with agoraphobia (PDA).

Art therapy is not an uncommon solution to anxiety. In fact, the concept of making art for therapeutic reasons dates back to the 1940s. Art therapy has been used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder. This study confirms the effectiveness of treating PDA with art therapy.

Observing CBT and Art Therapy

Participants in this case study included one sufferer of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and one of PDA. The study began by recording a two-week baseline to record the patient's usual anxiety levels. That period was followed by a seven-week treatment period in which patients underwent both CBT and art therapy treatments. Sessions were categorized as follows:

  • Psychoeducation
  • Breathing retraining/Identification of support systems
  • Cognitive restructuring
  • Introspective exposure/Breathing retraining
  • Imaginal exposure
  • In vivo exposure
  • Relapse prevention

Sessions included both CBT and art-based therapy to address both verbal and nonverbal symptoms of PDA and GAD. Participants tracked their symptoms and progress through a diary of their symptoms.

For the PDA case study, results showed lower levels of panic frequency than in control weeks. In the GAD case study, results were marginally significant.

How Art Therapy Can Improve Anxiety Treatment

One of the most difficult obstacles faced by people with PDA is trying to verbalize their concerns. Because panic attacks can occur without any traceable reason, cognitive restructuring of PDA is slightly more difficult to treat than other anxiety disorders. With art therapy, patients can express their panic symptoms using other senses, thereby helping the therapist to pinpoint concerns and work through them.

Art's therapeutic powers have been put to practice time and time again. This case study shows that art can be an effective therapeutic treatment, if used with CBT. This information could change the way we go about treating anxiety and other mental health issues by adding another therapy option to the spectrum that already exists.

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Frances J. Morris. Should art be integrated into cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders? The Arts In Psychotherapy, September 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.aip.2014.07.002.

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