Using Expressive Arts Therapy To Heal

By Sarah Fader

Updated June 25, 2019

Reviewer 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 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 picture of the dream they had. They might have the child dance and talk to them about what they were feeling 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 have them paint their trauma - it dependents on what the client needs, and what the therapist can do to support them.


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. It 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. At the root of every art form, there is poetry, 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 than 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 needs to be registered by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA). They need to have completed clinical work in this area. They should be an expressive art therapist rather than an art therapist. You want to work with a provider who is making an integrative approach rather than focusing on one medium. It's always good to speak to your therapist by phone or Skype before committing to a long-term relationship with that person.

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, MA. Paola Knill is a leader in the field of expressive arts therapy. Knill developed it in Cambridge, and now it's 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 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 a variety of different 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 a 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 so they can use their imagination and also artistically express their feelings. Children love to engage their creativity, and this 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, and it's unique in that. 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

Expressive arts therapy exercises

Some people do painting or drawing, movement or dance, or theater. Here are some exercises that clients do:

  • Mask making
  • Interpretive dance
  • Storytelling
  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Journaling

Expressive arts therapy encourages the client to use multiple senses during these exercises. Your therapist might ask you to paint a picture of a sad memory. They may ask you to dance or move how you were feeling on the day that you experienced trauma. These exercises are meant to help the client explore their emotions and express them through the arts.

Four components

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

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

It can help people through a variety of conditions and help people become self-aware and gain tremendous emotional insight, which is invaluable. They may not have gotten this sort of insight through talk therapy because it was too cerebral and not interactive. Expressive arts therapy can help people who have anger issues. 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, story-telling, and music. It's a type of treatment where the client gets to choose 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 be beneficial to heal from trauma or get to the source of emotional wounds. There is something about the arts that makes us be able to get in touch with unconscious thoughts. Whether you want to find a therapist to work within your city or town or try online therapy is up to you. Online therapy is a suitable type of mental health treatment. You can access your therapist in the privacy of your home or wherever there's an internet connection. 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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