Using Expressive Arts Therapy To Heal

Updated December 18, 2018

The arts can be an unmatched way for a person to express themselves. Sometimes it's much easier to tell others how we're feeling through a song, a painting, or through dance. This calls to mind pop star Sia's music video for her single "Elastic Heart." Here, Shia LeBoeuf and Maddie Ziegler play warring parts of Sia's personality to effective and intense effect. This video can be considered an example of expressive arts therapy.


What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Expressive arts therapy combines the healing power of therapy with the creative process to help a person overcome the obstacles that stand in his or her way of attaining happiness. This innovative form of therapy can use everything from music to the theater as a tool to reach a patient.

You may have heard of art therapy previously. Art therapy, however, is different from expressive arts therapy in that the latter incorporates a multitude of media, while the former focuses on one art form in particular. So, for example, a therapist who practices art therapy may specialize in painting or sculpting, but not music or theater.

Types Of Expressive Arts Therapy

As mentioned earlier, while art therapy focuses on one skill, in particular, expressive arts therapy runs the gamut. Some of the areas in which these therapists practices include:

  • Art therapy
  • Drama therapy
  • Play therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Poetry therapy or bibliotherapy
  • Dance or movement therapy
  • Sand play therapy

Therapists in this field are skilled in more than one area, so if you decide after completing an art project that you want to take on a dramatic role for your next therapy session, you can easily make the jump. However, if only one area in particular appeals to you, you could still go to an expressive arts therapist, or you could research therapists who specialize in that particular area that is of interest to you.

When Is Person-Centered Expressive Arts Therapy Used?

Expressive arts therapy applies to any age, be it children or adults, and it is used in some different situations. For instance, a therapist who is treating a child with expressive arts therapy may help that child express a past trauma or address a behavioral issue through the use of things like music, finger-painting, and dance.

During the session, the therapist will observe how the child responds to certain stimuli, as well as the child's behavior and the processes he or she engages in to get to whatever the result may be. From there, the therapist can evaluate the child's behavior and inclinations to get at the heart of what's bothering the child and help him, or she tries to fix it.

When it comes to adults, expressive arts therapy can be used similarly while encouraging the adult patient to take part in activities that help them find meaning in their lives. Such therapy can also be used to help the patient develop better communication skills with his or her friends and loved ones.

Who Can Benefit From Expressive Arts Therapy?

Just about anyone can benefit from expressive arts therapy. The practice is especially helpful for those who may have survived a traumatic event and who are having difficulty coping in the aftermath of that event.


Some of those who have benefited from the services that expressed arts therapy provide include:

  • Children who witness domestic violence in the home
  • Survivors of domestic violence, or another form of abuse
  • Patients in hospice, and their loved ones
  • Those who are grieving the loss of a friend or loved one
  • Mothers who are coping with postpartum depression
  • Students who are having difficulty in school
  • Children whose parents are in jail

For these patients, the expressive arts gave them a vehicle that allowed them to tell their stories. By putting their story out there, it allowed them to confront what was bothering them and overcome it. In a sense, the expressive arts permitted them to finally let go of their pain and begin leading a happier life.

This is because, when you create a piece of art, the emotions you feel and your interactions with others tend to be positive: accomplishment, security, validation, and encouragement. This positive enlightenment allows the brain to access and process the trauma so that it can finally be dealt with properly and filed away as it should be - and no longer interfering with the patient's daily life.

Another invaluable tool of expressive arts therapy is that it gives patients a way to relax, which can provide them with the much-needed relief they have been seeking for a long time. Think about it - when you're working on a needlepoint project or even coloring in an adult coloring book, don't you feel so relaxed that you could practically fall asleep? This is what expressive arts therapy can do for its patients.

There's also a sense of peace and catharsis in getting that bad energy out, too. For instance, once you've banged on a drum for a half hour, you feel positively spent, and feeling that spent can feel incredibly good. This is another way in which expressive arts therapy can reach patients - by giving them outlets to cry, scream, and beat things so they can exorcise that nervous energy and feel at peace.

When trauma is more accessible, and the brain is constantly torturing the patient with negative thoughts and emotions, he or she may feel like there's no respite to be had. This sense of relaxation that was once thought to be unattainable is appreciated ten-fold by those who participate in expressive arts therapy.

Expressive Arts Therapy Activities

Many of the same activities that adults partake in during expressive arts therapy are appropriate for children as well. These activities can include:


  • Writing in a journal daily.
  • Telling stories.
  • Reading out loud (performing a poem or story).
  • Making a memory book.
  • Creating a fun video.

The therapist can then discuss with the patient the things he or she loved and hated about partaking in these activities. These insights too can help a therapist to reach a patient better and find out what makes him or her tick.

For instance, maybe an older patient wanted to make a video showing special moments shared with friends and family members, but the patient was unable to figure out the technology. This made the patient feel frustrated and sad, which is to be expected. However, it also made the patient feel hopeless and depressed like he or she can't do anything right.

The therapist can work with this situation by showing the alternative patient ways of accomplishing his or her goal. Then, when the patient finally does get the video made and feels happiness and pride in this accomplishment, the therapist can use this opportunity to show the patient that see? He or she was never hopeless - the power was there all along. You just have to find (or sometimes, be shown) a different way to harness it.

Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy

Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy uses the same principles as normal expressive arts therapy while applying them to the specific training required for trauma intervention. Reaching patients who have suffered trauma is often more difficult due to the patient's unwillingness or inability to open up to the therapist.

Another obstacle in treating trauma patients is that their minds often repress the incident, leading to a lack of memory. And if the patient can't remember, that makes it all the harder to treat him or her.

What's great about expressive arts therapy as a treatment for trauma patients is that one thing crucial to treating trauma patients is that they must be given back a sense of empowerment to rise above this thing that happened to them that was not their fault. And what better way to empower someone than to give them a task, like creating a painting or an interpretive dance, that allows them to communicate in a way they haven't been able to in years?

Expressive arts can also be used as an analytical tool. A therapist can learn a lot about a patient in simply studying how he or she responds to triggers. These triggers may come out over the course of reading a piece of related literature or singing a song with a similar subject to the trauma the patient had suffered.


Once these reactions emerge, the therapist can then reinforce the fact that the patient is in a safe space where s/he should feel comfortable speaking freely. The patient can then build up the strength to feel whole again by continuing to express himself or herself through his or her preferred creative process.

Do you think that you or someone you know could benefit from participating in expressive arts therapy? Give our BetterHelp counselors a shout on our website for more information.


Next Article

Feminist Therapy Helps Everyone
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Counselor Today
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.