Keep Calm And Doodle On: The Cognitive And Mental Health Benefits of Doodling

Were you one of those kids who filled the margins of every notebook with scribbles and drawings? Who couldn’t leave a blank surface blank? And by surface, I’m including walls. 

Well, I’m here to tell you that you may have been on to something!

Doodling has always been considered a frivolous activity. However, there are so many surprising benefits to this thing we do absent-mindlessly and then never think about again. Whether your doodles are visually appealing, or just utter nonsense (like my own), all doodling has one thing in common: it emerges from our minds. 

That’s right, the seemingly random scribbles we leave on notebooks, napkins, tabletops, and walls might carry some meaning. In fact, Art therapists have known about the value of doodling for a long time. It’s time we learn don’t you think?

In this post, we will cover:

What doodling is in the first place 

The art therapy perspective on doodling

The many cognitive and mental health benefits of doodling

Let's dive in.

What Is Doodling?

Doodling is a form of self-expression that often emerges from our subconscious mind. Whether it's actual drawings, scribbles, or geometric shapes, we tend to doodle automatically, or when we are preoccupied or distracted. 

This opens an interesting door: What if doodling represents some part of our inner world? When our guard is down, do our hands speak the language of our subconscious mind? 

You may be surprised to know that psychologists have studied doodling quite extensively. Many of us doodle absentmindedly.

However, doodling can also be a form of escape. It’s not necessarily the mindless activity we think it is! When done purposefully, doodling can be soothing, calming, or even stimulating and thought-provoking. 

Remember the adult colouring book craze? When we are colouring patterns, we are tapping into the same zone as doodling: purposeful distraction.

Doodling And Art Therapy

The Canadian Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as combining the creative process with psychotherapy to facilitate self-exploration and understanding.

Art therapists can use doodling to help clients release stress, process emotions or events, or identify what they are feeling in the first place.

Doodling is a form of art that requires no skills- and therefore takes care of the problem of performance anxiety. There is no pressure to create something beautiful or profound!

Art therapists recognize that doodling is a form of creative expression. Like all expression, it can reveal something about our inner world.

5 Cognitive And Mental Health Benefits Of Doodling

We don't usually (or ever) think about the benefits of the things we do absentmindedly. They are life's 'fillers' or the stuff between the bigger moments.

Let's challenge that thinking and go through 5 benefits of doodling that you may not know about!

1. Doodling Helps Process Emotions

Our emotional world can get messy sometimes. Talk therapy, or even talking to a trusted friend, can help us piece it together. However, not everyone finds talking about their feelings comfortable, or even possible.

Doodling helps slow the mind down. When we are caught in a spiral of negative thoughts, slowing down and drawing actual spirals on a napkin is not meaningless- it can help interrupt our thoughts and ultimately feel less distressed.

It can also physically represent what we are feeling at the moment and help us identify that we are actually in distress. Free writing/free journaling has the same effect! Adding doodles to your journaling can enhance this whole exercise.

Furthermore, doodling can help us remain emotionally balanced when we are bored, frustrated, or nervous. For example, I doodle a lot before presentations because it helps me deal with my nerves.

2. Doodling Releases Stress

Stress often comes from being afraid of making a mistake. When we doodle, there are no expectations or mistakes! In fact, we are going out of our way to be messy and incoherent. We all need this break from the pressure of being productive. Doodling is a small and simple therapeutic exercise to achieve this.

The rhythmic and repetitive motions of doodling can help ease us out of the fight-or-flight mode of an active stress response. Next time you feel stressed and overwhelmed, try doodling and notice how you feel after 5 minutes of this focused activity.

3. Doodling Helps With Concentration And Memory

I know this seems counterintuitive! Doodling is something we do when we are unfocused- how can it help increase our focus?

One researcher looked into this and found that participants who were given a shape-shading task were able to concentrate better and listen more closely to a rambling and convoluted phone message. Moreover, they did better on a surprise memory that followed shortly after!

If you think about it, this makes sense. Paying continuous attention to something puts considerable strain and stress on our brain. If you have ever say through a 3 hour university lecture, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Doodling gives our minds a softer landing spot. By dividing our attention a little and giving our minds a break, we are actually better able to attend and retain information.

4. Doodling Enhances Creativity

Do you ever get your best ideas or bursts of inspiration when you are doing something entirely unrelated?

Doodling can help induce this state (granted, of course, that we are actually not focused or thinking about the other task). The next time you are feeling stuck, set a timer and just doodle aimlessly.

What does this do? It gives the 'focus circuits' of your brain a break and allows the 'creative circuits' to take the drivers seat.

5. Doodling Helps Our Minds Wander

If you are a daydreamer like me or have a short attention span, you might not need any more help or encouragement for your mind to wander.

However, a wandering mind is great for big-picture thinking. For those of us who do detailed or complex work, it can be difficult to retain a grip on the bigger perspective- seeing the forest, not just the trees.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by the details, try doodling arches and shapes that make you feel expansive. You may return to your work with a shift in perspective!

Wrapping Up

If you have been doodling on a random napkin while 'reading' this post, I forgive you...it was kind of the point.

I hope this post inspired you to pay attention to the little things we do between life's bigger moments. Those things are not always fillers! They may actually be tiny doorways into our subconscious, which we can tap into to enhance our every day lives.

I want to hear from you: Do you consider yourself an artistic doodler or are your doodles more like scribbles and lines? Send your best absentminded work to us over @wellnesttherapy on IG! We'll be sure to feature it.

That’s all for me! If you have any questions about this topic, feel free to send me an email. Or book an appointment with anyone from WellNest’s awesome team! You can also book a free phone consult at anytime.

Until next time!

Hala Shamsi

Mental Health Content Specialist

WellNest Psychotherapy Services

Hala is a Social Worker and Mental Health Content Specialist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. She is always deep in the middle of an internet spiral to bring you fresh insights into the world of mental wellness.

Is there a topic you want to see covered in this blog? Feel free to reach out at the email above to let her know!