Arts Therapies for Depression and Anxiety

Breast cancer is a condition whose diagnosis may result in extensive emotional, physical, and social suffering. It engenders stress and anxiety related to future prognosis and potential mortality. It may also cause uncertainty about changes in a woman’s body image and treatment options.

Patients may experience anxiety regarding surgical experience, coping with acute pain, treatment regimens, financial burdens of care, and disruptions of their personal and professional lives .

Cancer patients are increasingly turning to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life, and boost their ability to cope with stress. Different types of arts interventions have been used to alleviate symptoms and treatment adverse effects in women suffering from breast cancer. Arts therapies are made use of especially by motivated patients who want to actively participate in their healing process.

Art for Anxiety
Art for Anxiety

Among others, from a large New Zealand health survey which sampled 12.529 people, aged 15 years and older, it is known that CAM users are more likely to be middle aged, rich, well educated, of European descent, and female. They are more likely to have hardness to treat conditions and to be less well but actively try to maintain their health. In particular, when patients undergo acute treatment, arts therapies are recommended as well, when physicians detect the need for psychosocial support and therefore consult psychooncology services.

Description of the Interventions

Arts as therapy have become increasingly popular in a number of medical and health fields and the application ranges from working with children suffering from psychiatric disorders to elderly dementia patients. As the importance of psychosocial aspects of dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment has been better recognized and understood, the interest in arts therapies for breast cancer patients has also increased. Art therapy is an umbrella term for therapies such as dance and movement therapy, music therapy, and art therapy working with visual arts materials. The use of the artistic media as a means for therapy offers patients a way to communicate experiences, feelings, and needs, which are hard to express verbally.

Art Therapy Video

This possibility for an alternative way of communication can be important in particular for patients who are dealing with emotional conflicts and spiritual or existential issues. In reflecting on the image, music, or dance as well as on the process of its production with the arts therapist, one’s resources can be activated or new ways of coping with the situation can be developed ( At the same time the artistic process can be a way for experiencing one’s own capability or to relax in times of straining physical treatment. Arts therapies therefore are increasingly used in psychooncology with the goal of psychosocial stabilization and support in the process of coping with the disease.

Other Research

Mainly, studies have looked at symptomatic effects such as anxiety and depression, two of the most commonly coexisting accompanying illnesses of breast cancer, while there are only a few empirical trials assessing the effects of art therapy on coping and quality of life of the breast cancer patient, apart from a number of case studies.

Wood et al. in 2011 carried out a systematic review of art therapy in adult cancer patients. They concluded that art therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach that is being used to manage a spectrum of treatment-related symptoms and facilitate the process of psychological readjustment to the loss, change, and uncertainty characteristic of cancer survivorship. However, the review did not include a meta-analysis. Moreover, while breast cancer was the most prominent type of cancer in their review, Wood et al. did not include a separate analysis of studies that included only breast cancer patients.

Since patients with different types of cancer are heterogeneous in terms of sociodemographic factors, symptoms, treatment, and side effects, meta-analyses should focus on homogeneous cancer groups. Furthermore, the terminology is somewhat confusing since there is “art therapy” in which the term “art” refers to visual art and “arts therapies” as a main category for all forms also including therapies such as music therapy, dance therapy, and drama therapy.


This meta-analysis showed that arts therapies seem to positively affect the extent to which breast cancer patients score in anxiety and depression but not quality of life. It leads to the recommendation that in breast cancer patients the option of participation in arts therapies is being suggested and shown to be significantly effective for reduction of anxiety and depression over control.

Apart from case reports, there are currently only a small number of empirical studies investigating the effect of art therapy on psychological parameters such as coping and quality of life accompanying the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.