Down through the ages, every form of art—music, drama, art, dance—has been used as a way to communicate. Through art, you can learn to express your emotions in ways that don’t employ words. If you give someone who is being treated for cancer, for example, a canvas and some paints, a painting will emerge—one that inevitably relates to his or her feelings.

The reason art therapy has become so important in medicine is that it allows us to express what we can’t or don’t want to talk about verbally, but that we can express through painting, sculpture, writing, or drama. It helps us release negative emotions and get to the core of healing.

I am moved by the often-told story of Holocaust survivor Alfred Kantor. He used art as a stress-relieving, emotion-releasing activity during his imprisonment in concentration camps, and in the process left one of the few visual records of that horrific period in history. To avoid detection, Kantor sketched and painted when no one was looking, mainly at night, and he would hide his sketchbook under the floor. His paintings reveal unspeakable horrors committed by the Nazis: naked women being classified into those who would live and those who would die; corpses being dumped from the gas chambers into trucks; the flames from the crematorium chimneys at night; and vicious SS guards.

This body of work was published in 1971 by McGraw-Hill as The Book of Alfred Kantor. He wrote that his art helped him survive and cope with the unimaginable horrors he experienced. I believe that creative expression kept his spirit alive.

And I believe that creativity can work in a similar way for all of us. A good example is depression. When we’re depressed, we tend to withdraw and get lost in the sadness. But if we get involved in something artistic, it takes us away from the sadness and puts our focus on an activity with the potential to bring joy.

Art has enormous healing power and is effective in treating trauma. Art therapists have helped combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as trauma victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

There’s even more. Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia found that women with cancer who sculpted or sketched experienced less pain, insomnia, and overall stress during their treatment. And researchers at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital discovered that art therapy reduced fatigue and pain, and boosted appetite among a group of 50 cancer patients.

Music is also a powerful healing instrument, extensively reached for its benefits. Music therapy:

  • Reduces pain intensity in various types of chronic pain, including fibromyalgia
  • Controls lower-back pain
  • Distracts patients from pain and other symptoms of illnesses
  • Improves mood
  • Relieves stress

One of the most powerful effects of music therapy has been found in the treatment of Alzheimer’s patients. Researchers at Dartmouth College discovered that a part of the brain called the rostromedial prefrontal cortex responds to specific keys in a melody. This part of the brain also happens to help us retrieve memories and emotions connected to those memories. When a music therapist played a song recognizable to an Alzheimer’s patient, an emotional connection was forged. The patient was able to retrieve memories, better organize thoughts, and connect to the present. Additional studies suggest that when Alzheimer’s patients take part in music therapy, melatonin levels in their blood start to surge. Melatonin is a soothing chemical in the body. As this natural chemical increases, patients become less aggressive and agitated.

Another powerful way to promote self-healing is to dance your troubles away. Dance therapy helps kids who can’t express their feelings verbally. And it’s great for adults who need to come out of their shells; as well as elderly men and women who may be too lonely, depressed, or disoriented to talk. I’ve seen people strengthen weaknesses in their hands by learning to play a guitar, and someone born with one leg shorter than the other learn to walk more gracefully after taking dancing lessons. And there are many more healing miracles like these. Nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, and schools for children with special needs all incorporate dance therapy as a part of their standard care.

While enjoying making music or dancing, you’re also building your self-esteem, a vital aspect in healing. Connect to your own creativity, and you’ll create profound self-healing in your life.

Dr. Fabrizio Mancini is an expert in self-healing; an internationally acclaimed educator, philanthropist, and bilingual speaker; and president emeritus of Parker University in Dallas, Texas.