Using Expressive Arts Therapy To Heal

Updated February 1, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Expressive arts therapy combines creativity and psychology to help people heal from trauma and grow emotionally. It's an approach that combines psychology and the arts—whether it's theater, music, dance, or visual arts—to help clients connect to their feelings. The goal of expressive arts therapy is to help people uncover the causes of their mental health difficulties, connect with the origins of their emotions, and work with a provider to develop a treatment plan for coping with symptoms.

Expressive Arts Therapy Can Help Uncover Mental Health Challenges

The Four Components Of Expressive Arts Therapy

Expressive arts therapy is commonly used for treating young children or adults who are recovering from trauma. It may be used individually or in group therapy settings. It’s especially useful for those who have trouble reaching or expressing their emotions verbally, as they may find that other creative mediums allow them to do this more freely. Understanding the four main components of expressive arts therapy can be helpful in seeing how it can be effective. 

#1. Expression

The first component is expression, which is simply the act of conveying one’s internal emotions in an external form. Without expressing their feelings in some way, it can be nearly impossible for an individual to receive help from a mental health professional in working through them. 

#2. Active Participation

The next component is active participation. The mediums used in this type of therapy are typically hands-on (drawing, sculpting, playing musical instruments, etc.), which means the individual will always be an active participant in their own healing.

#3. Imagination

Imagination is the third component. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, using one’s imagination to create art can contribute to the healing process because it can help us see our problems or challenges from a different perspective. 

#4. The Mind-Body Connection

Finally, the fourth component of this type of therapy is the mind-body connection. Unlike traditional forms of talk therapy, expressive arts therapy actively involves the five senses, the hands, and sometimes other parts of the body, as with interpretive dance. This element can help it be a more immersive experience that also promotes awareness, which can be helpful in a therapeutic context.

Conditions That Expressive Arts Therapy May Help Treat

While expressive arts therapy is commonly associated with healing from trauma, it can also be useful for other conditions that may be unrelated to this type of harmful past experience. For instance, expressive arts therapy could help a person who is experiencing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or self-esteem issues. Research suggests that this type of therapy can be especially helpful for those experiencing an eating disorder. It can be used alone or, more likely, in tandem with another, more traditional form of talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Who Can Benefit From Expressive Arts Therapy

While expressive arts therapy can be helpful for most anyone, it’s commonly used with children. The key reason for this is that most children aren’t yet skilled in understanding how to express their emotions verbally. Expressive arts therapy can allow them to convey how they’re feeling in other, more intuitive and hands-on ways. 

Rather than describing feelings in words, children are often more demonstrative, and expressive arts therapy gives them the chance to act out their feelings in various artistic ways. They may write a story, use finger painting, or perform a scene about a character who is angry, and then discuss that with their therapist. Expressive arts therapy, in conjunction with psychotherapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can help children gain insight into their feelings and support their healing and/or growth.

That said, adults who tend to gravitate toward other forms of self-expression outside of words may also find this type of therapy to be useful. It can also help in situations where the trauma someone has experienced is too difficult or painful to put into words. Communicating it through an artistic medium can be a more practical step toward healing.

Types Of Expressive Arts Therapy Exercises

Expressive arts therapy can take many different forms depending on the individual, what they’re aiming to heal from, their preferences, and the therapist’s expertise. A few examples include:

  • Creating drawings, even simple line art

  • Reflecting on specific events through acting and roleplay

  • Painting a self-portrait

  • Interpretive dancing

  • Writing poetry

  • Making music

Again, expressive arts therapy is a highly personal modality, and the therapist will typically encourage the individual to use the medium they feel most connected to. It’s also important to remember that expressive arts therapy is about the process rather than the end result. That means those who don’t have a background in the arts or feel that they’re not artistically inclined don’t need to worry; this type of therapy can still be effective for them.

How To Choose An Expressive Arts Therapist

Your therapist should be registered by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) and should have completed clinical work in this area. If you don’t already have a specific art medium in mind, it may be best to choose a provider who takes an integrative approach rather than focusing on one specific medium. If there’s a particular type of trauma you’re looking to work through, you might also seek out someone who has experience in that particular area. 

Feeling comfortable with the practitioner you choose is typically paramount for the success of any type of therapy, so you may want to meet with them via phone or in person first to see whether it feels like a good fit. Remember, it’s completely normal to try out a few therapists before you find the one that works for you. 

Expressive Arts Therapy Can Help Uncover Mental Health Challenges

Seeking Out Other Types Of Therapy

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition and aren’t sure which type of therapy might be right for you, it can be helpful to meet with a mental health professional for a consultation. You could also try a broad, widely applicable type of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) first, which has been shown to be effective for a variety of mental health challenges. While expressive arts therapy is typically done in person, CBT can be done in person or online. Research suggests that both formats can offer similar benefits to people in a variety of situations, so the virtual option can be helpful to those who can’t locate a provider in their area, don’t have access to reliable transportation, or simply prefer to receive treatment from the comfort of home.

If you’re interested in trying virtual therapy, you might consider using a platform like BetterHelp. You’ll start by filling out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences. Next, you’ll be matched with a licensed therapist who you can then meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. For client reviews of BetterHelp therapists, see below.

Counselor Reviews

“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.”

Takeaway

Expressive arts therapy can be a useful intervention for those who are looking to heal from past trauma or simply find alternative ways to express their emotions. It can be a helpful treatment for a variety of mental health conditions, especially when used in tandem with more traditional forms of talk therapy.

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