Using Expressive Arts Therapy To Heal

By Sarah Fader |Updated August 3, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Expressive arts therapy is a type of mental health treatment that combines creativity and psychology to help people grow emotionally and heal from trauma. It's an approach that uses psychology and the arts, whether it's theater, music, dance, or fine arts, to help individuals heal. It's different from art therapy in that it involves multiple different kinds of artistic mediums, whereas art therapy focuses on just the visual representation of fine arts. Expressive arts therapy is an integrative approach that combines various mediums to help clients get in touch with their feelings. There is something about the techniques that help people get to the core of their emotions and find out how to heal from emotional wounds. That's the goal of expressive arts therapy.

When To Use Expressive Arts Therapy

It is a common type of treatment that is used with young children. It's used in group therapy and with adults who are recovering from trauma. With kids, the therapist will observe the child's behavior after they engage in artistic expression. They will help the child tell a story about something they've been through or paint a visual representation of the dream they had. They might have the child dance and talk to them about what they felt as they were moving. Storytelling is a part of expressive arts therapy. The therapist can help their clients who are experiencing trauma express themselves in a dramatic scene or paint their trauma – it depends on what the client needs and what the therapist can do to support them.

Expressive Arts Therapy Can Help You Heal Your Trauma

What To Expect

During this type of treatment, you will use all of the human senses: hearing, touch, taste, smell, and sight. Your therapist will help you dig deep and get in touch with the trauma you've experienced. They will support you in exploring deep emotional issues that you want to target. This approach can also be referred to as person-centered expressive therapy. You will do art therapy activities, but it's not precisely art therapy. You might draw a picture in expressive arts therapy. But it's not the only type of art you're going to participate in during this treatment. You will do theatrical exercises, dance, and engage in musical activities too.

How Expressive Arts Therapy Works

There's a Greek word called poetits, which means poetry. There is poetry at root of every art form, and it comes from a deep emotional place within us. That's where creativity is born. The idea of expressive arts therapy is that you're doing these art forms to get to the deep emotional place so you can heal. It's different from joining a theater class as a hobby or taking up ceramics because you want to learn the craft. You are engaging in expressive arts therapy to help yourself get better from trauma or explore deep pain. The arts can be incredibly healing, and that's the goal of expressive arts therapy.

What To Look For In Your Expressive Arts Therapist

Your therapist should be registered by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) and have completed clinical work in this area. They should be an expressive art therapist rather than an art therapist. Look for a provider who takes an integrative approach rather than focusing on one medium. It's always good to speak to your therapist by phone or a video call before committing to a long-term relationship.

The History Of Expressive Arts Therapy

Some forms of therapy date back decades, whereas expressive arts therapy is a young form of treatment. It developed in the 1970s at Leslie College Graduate School in Cambridge, Mass. Paola Knill is a leader in the field of expressive arts therapy. It is now a widely known form of treatment that helps many people heal from trauma.

Expressive Arts Therapy For Children

Expressive arts therapy is a tremendous emotional form of expression for children. Not only is it beneficial for children because they can express themselves, but they can learn to understand their feelings and the emotions of others. If they're angry, they can show that rage and then talk about it with their therapist. Maybe they write a story, use finger painting as an artistic tool, create an art project with natural materials like traditional sand or a paper bag, or perform a scene about a character who is angry. Rather than describing feelings in words, children are more demonstrative. Expressive arts therapy gives them the chance to act out their feelings in various artistic ways. Once the child expresses their raw emotion through the preferred art form, it's an opportunity for the therapist to talk to them about the art they created. Expressive arts therapy can help children gain insight into their feelings and support their healing.

Children Use Their Bodies To Heal

When a child is dancing or involved in theater, they're creative, but they're also using their bodies. They are moving and doing things, which is not the case when they're creating fine arts. When a child is acting or dancing, multiple senses are working at the same time. Expressive arts therapy is excellent for children who are shy to use their bodies because it allows them the freedom to move as they please. There are no wrong answers in expressive arts therapy. A child gets to be themselves.

The Process

Expressive arts therapy uses many different artistic techniques to help an individual find emotional clarity and heal. It's different from talk therapy because it combines various art forms such as dance, theater, fine arts, and music. A client may keep an art journal to practice the art of writing. With children, the therapist will work on storytelling as a way to help them express their feelings. They might help the child make up a fictional story to use their imagination and artistically express their feelings with their own interpretation. Children often love to engage their creativity, and creating art is one of the ways they can do that.

Mental Health Conditions That Expressive Arts Therapy Treats

Expressive arts therapy is an excellent form of treatment for trauma and recovery. There is an overlap between this form of treatment and trauma-informed therapy. But that's not the only condition that it can help treat. There are many different mental health conditions that expressive arts therapy can help people cope with, which makes it unique. It helps treat people who have been through trauma. Here are more conditions that expressive arts therapy helps people combat:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • PTSD
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • self esteem issues

Expressive Arts Therapy Ideas and Exercises

When it comes to expressive art therapy, many people create different art projects to express their emotions. Some people paint or draw, move or dance, or participate in theater. If you’re looking for different art therapy ideas, here are some common exercises:

  • Mask making
  • Interpretive dance
  • Storytelling
  • Painting a self portrait
  • Drawing
  • Journaling

Expressive arts therapy encourages the client to use multiple senses during these exercises. Your therapist might come up with different therapy ideas and ask you to paint a picture to visually express a sad memory, keep a dream journal, or draw a self portrait or a picture of your family members. They may ask you to dance or move to show how you felt on the day you experienced trauma. These exercises are meant to help the client explore their negative emotions and express them through the arts.

Four Components

Four components make up expressive arts therapy. They are the four basic aspects that this form of treatment targets:

  1. Expression
  2. Imagination
  3. Active participation
  4. The mind-body connection

Expressive arts therapy can help people through a variety of conditions and help people improve self-esteem, become self-aware, and gain tremendous emotional insight, which is invaluable. They may not have gotten this insight through talk therapy because it was too cerebral and not interactive. Expressive arts therapy can help people who have anger issues or a negative self-image. There is empirical evidence that it helps people who have an eating disorder or body image issues. People who have medical conditions have benefited from expressive arts therapy, including those with cystic fibrosis.

Expressive Arts Therapy And Art Therapy Are Different

Art therapy targets one medium, whereas expressive arts therapy targets theater, dance, storytelling, and music. It's a type of treatment where the client chooses what kind of art they resonate with and express their emotions through that art. Many creative processes are at work in expressive arts therapy. A certified art therapist is leading their clients in exercises that they pick, most of the time, whereas expressive arts therapy lets the client take the lead. Expressive arts therapy has an integrative approach. Your expressive art therapist should be certified through the Expressive Arts Therapy Association.

Finding A Therapist

Whether you want to work with a therapist online or in your local area, expressive arts therapy can help you heal from trauma, improve your self esteem, or get to the source of your emotional wounds. There is something about the arts that allows us to get in touch with unconscious thoughts. Whether you want to find a therapist to work with within your city or town or try online therapy is up to you.

Expressive Arts Therapy Can Help You Heal Your Trauma

Online therapy is a suitable type of mental health treatment and is as effective as traditional face-to-face counseling, which makes it an incredibly convenient option. This study, conducted by Brigham Young University researchers, found that technology-based therapy provides other added benefits too, including “lower cost, no travel time, easy access, no waitlists, and trackable progress.”

If these perks are attractive to you, consider choosing an online therapy solution such as BetterHelp.

You can access your therapist in the privacy of your home or wherever there's an internet connection. The site also offers numerous sources of helpful information about common mental illness disorders and articles discussing how to cope with stress, difficult people, and challenging situations. Here's a look at what others had to say about the assistance they received from the counselors at BetterHelp.

“I’ve been through countless therapists in my life, and Dr. Pilgrim is by far the best. She’s so open to my views & also creative in how she handles my problems - she’s not a “boring,” textbook driven therapist - she’s so much more. ❤️”

“Danya has a wonderful way of using humour, wisdom, and creative frameworks to help me analyse my behaviour and put things in perspective in a very difficult year.”

Don't wait to get help. Reach out to the therapists here at BetterHelp and find the source of your emotional pain. You can get the support you need.

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