Expressive arts therapy for your healing journey

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated January 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Expressive arts therapy combines creativity and psychology to help people heal from trauma and improve their emotional health. Expressive arts therapy is an approach where expressive arts therapists combine psychology and the creative arts—whether it's theater, music, dance, or visual arts—to help clients connect to their inner feelings. The goal of expressive therapy is to help people uncover the causes of their mental health difficulties, connect with the origins of their emotional state, and work with creative arts therapists to develop a treatment plan for coping with symptoms and igniting self-discovery.

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Expressive arts therapy can help uncover mental health challenges

Four components of expressive arts therapy

Expressive arts therapies, also called creative arts therapies or simply expressive therapy, are commonly used for treating young children or adults who are recovering from trauma. Like many other forms of therapy, expressive arts may be used individually or in group settings, and anxiety art therapy can be a valuable tool for those seeking anxiety reduction, stress relief, or to improve their overall mental health. Expressive arts therapy techniques may be especially useful for those who have trouble connecting to a deep emotional place or expressing their emotions verbally, as they may find that other creative mediums and making art allow them to do this more freely. Understanding the four main components of this modality can be helpful in seeing how it can be an effective therapeutic tool. 

1. Creativity

The first component is creative expression, which is simply the act of conveying one’s internal emotions in an external form. Without expressing their feelings or inner world 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 art form used in this modality is typically hands-on (drawing, sculpting, playing musical instruments, mask making, etc.), which means the individual will always be an active participant in their own healing through art making.

3. Imagination

Imagination is the third component of expressive therapies. Expressive arts therapy draws on the imagination to encourage people to express feelings in new art forms to inspire personal growth during the creative process.

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 a person see the problems or challenges in their daily life from a different perspective.

4. Mind-body connection

Finally, the fourth component 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 or dance therapy. This element can help it be a more immersive experience that also promotes awareness, which can be helpful in developing self awareness in a therapeutic context.

Conditions that it may help

While expressive arts therapy is commonly associated with healing from trauma, it can also be useful for other mental health problems that may be unrelated to this type of harmful past experience. For instance, expressive arts therapy could be used as a complimentary medicine to help human beings who are experiencing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or self-esteem issues. Research and current literature suggests that music, dance, drama, and other modalities in the art therapy space can be especially helpful for those experiencing an eating disorder. Creative arts therapy 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

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; and many are already used to engaging in the creative process through their education. Expressive arts interventions can allow them to convey how they’re feeling in other, more intuitive and hands-on ways. In some internal medicine units and other hospital units, expressive art is a common treatment given alongside other therapeutic interventions.

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 art therapists. Expressive arts therapy, in conjunction with psychotherapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral psychotherapy, can help children gain insight into their feelings, improve behavioral issues, and support their healing and/or deep personal growth.

That said, adults who tend to gravitate toward other forms of self-expression outside of words may also find this to be useful for adult health. 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.

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Expressive arts therapy exercises

Expressive arts therapy can take many 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

One study looked at the impact of the emotions of patients admitted to a public health internal medicine unit and found that even art contemplation (looking at photographs) could be beneficial for emotional health.

Again, expressive arts therapy is a highly personal modality.One particular art form isn’t better than the others. The therapist will typically encourage the individual to use the medium they feel most connected with, whether it’s visual arts, music, dance, or other creative arts. 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; these types of therapeutic aesthetics can still be effective for them. If you are interested in online learning to learn more about these topics, consider exploring publications from an open-source journal platform, such as the one by Appalachian State University. You can search publications by keywords or by the specific international journal. If you’re a therapist looking for further reading, Jessica Kingsley Publishers carries a wide range of books about different types of expressive art therapy, including ones on writing, music, and more.

How to choose an expressive arts therapist

Your therapist should be registered by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) have a master’s degree or higher, 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 mental health professionals who take 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 an expressive arts therapist who has experience in that particular area. 

Feeling comfortable with the expressive arts therapist you choose is typically paramount for the success of any type of mental health treatment, 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 session with a few therapists before you find the one that works for you. 

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Expressive arts therapy can help uncover mental health challenges

Seeking out support and other types of counseling

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 counseling like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)or mindfulness-based approaches 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 reliable transportation, or simply prefer to receive treatment from the comfort of home. Alternative and complementary medicine can be used alongside traditional types of counseling, so you do not need to choose one or the other.

If you’re interested in trying virtual therapy, you might consider using an online learning and counseling 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 humor, wisdom, and creative frameworks to help me analyze my behavior 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 inborn desire and emotions. Bringing together art-making and psychological care can be a helpful treatment for a variety of mental health conditions, especially when used in tandem with more traditional forms of talk therapy. If you’d like to work with a licensed mental health professional, connecting with a therapist online can be a constructive first step toward expressing your emotions and fostering mental wellness.

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