Drawing to Distract: Examining the Psychological Benefits of Drawing
Jennifer E. Drake
Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Ingrid Hastedt and Ciara James
Individuals gravitate toward the arts during times of emotional stress. We examined the benefits of
drawing over several sessions to determine whether drawing improves mood and, if so, whether it does
so because it allows for emotional expression or distraction. After inducing a sad mood, we asked
participants (n⫽40) to draw over 4 consecutive days. Half of the participants were instructed to draw
as a way to express their feelings (express condition) and half were instructed to draw as a way to focus
and observe (distract condition). Mood was measured after the first and final testing session and a life
satisfaction scale was administered at the beginning of the first testing session and after the final session.
We found that drawing to distract improved mood more than drawing to express, both after a single
drawing session and after 4 sessions. These findings are consistent with previous findings on drawing,
but run counter to reports on the relative health benefits of expressive writing. We suggest drawing and
writing may affect mood through different mechanisms.
Keywords: drawing, emotion regulation, distraction, emotional expression
Individuals gravitate toward the arts during times of emo-
tional stress: art is made in prisons as a way to communicate
(Safe Street Arts Foundation, 2013) and drawings are made
after natural disasters as a way to cope with emotional distress
(Dewan, 2007). Art-making has many possible therapeutic ben-
efits: it is a way to make meaning of an event, a way to
communicate distress and thus provide some kind of relief, and
a way to regulate emotions (Winner, 1982). Individuals with no
training in the arts turn to the arts in times of trouble: the arts
provide meaning and purpose (they help us express our feel-
ings) as well as a means of distraction (they shift our attention
away from what is upsetting us).
The Benefits of Drawing
The arts provide constructive ways of dealing with trauma.
Visual artists have often talked about art as a form of therapy.
Artists may realize—whether consciously or unconsciously—that
creating art has the power to improve mood. Many case studies of
patients receiving art therapy report mood improvement (e.g.,
Briks, 2007;Pifalo, 2006;Tipple, 2008) and a few experimental
studies have also demonstrated that art therapy is beneficial in
reducing trauma-related symptoms (Schouten, de Niet, Knip-
scheer, Kleber, & Hutschemaekers, 2015). However, there is lim-
ited experimental research on the benefits of art therapy and,
furthermore, these studies cannot tell us whether the art therapy
was causally implicated in the improvement since art therapy is
typically coupled with other kinds of therapy. Also, art therapy is
an activity that varies across clients and has many uses and takes
a variety of forms. According to the American Art Therapy As-
sociation (2013), it “uses art media, the creative process, and the
resulting artwork to explore feelings, reconcile emotional con-
flicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, de-
velop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and
increase self-esteem.” The question still remains whether the sim-
ple act of drawing has psychological benefits outside of an art
While research on the psychological benefits of art is still in its
infancy, recent evidence has demonstrated that making art has
immediate benefits. De Petrillo and Winner (2005) showed that
drawing improves mood more strongly than does copying geomet-
ric shapes, arguably because copying is not as engaging as draw-
ing. Other researchers have examined the relative benefits of using
drawing as a means of expression versus using drawing as a means
of distraction. Dalebroux, Goldstein, and Winner (2008) had par-
ticipants watch a sad film clip and then randomly assigned them to
complete one of three activities: scan a sheet of symbols (non-
drawing task), draw something happy (distraction), or draw some-
thing expressing their mood (expression). They found that imme-
diately after drawing, mood improved the most when drawing was
used as a form of distraction rather than expression. The mood
This article was published Online First June 23, 2016.
Jennifer E. Drake, Department of Psychology, Brooklyn College, City
University of New York; Ingrid Hastedt and Ciara James, Department of
Psychology, Boston College.
This research was supported by Brooklyn College of the City University
of New York. We thank Ellen Winner for her comments on an earlier
version of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer
E. Drake, Department of Psychology, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY
11210. E-mail: email@example.com
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
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Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts © 2016 American Psychological Association
2016, Vol. 10, No. 3, 325–331 1931-3896/16/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000064