What Is Expressive Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Expressive arts therapy is a form of treatment that involves the use of creativity, the arts, movement, and psychology to encourage healing and emotional development. Expressive arts therapy can benefit both children and adults, individually or in groups. The concept behind creative expressive therapy is that each human being possesses an innate desire to create something. Generally, expressive therapy involves the use of the arts, such as dance, music, poetry, etc. to help people process their emotions.

The process of expression and creativity, as opposed to the final product, tends to be the central focus of this therapy. The treatment usually embraces individual creativity and the multitude of psychological benefits that often come along with it. Expressive therapy is usually geared toward the individual’s senses and the growth of the imagination.

A closer look

Art counselors strive to help people find clarity, purpose, and peace. While one person may benefit from journaling or singing in expressive therapy, another person may find that music creation (potentially music therapy) or artistic work speaks to them. In expressive therapy, it is not uncommon for an individual to employ multiple creative outlets and achieve the desired results from various forms of creativity.

Expressive arts therapy is an area of alternative and complementary medicine that combines creative expression with traditional talk therapy to improve an individual’s emotional state. Complementary medicine is any therapeutic treatment that is used to supplement the main treatment. Using a journal, musical instruments, and other forms of creative outlets during therapy sessions can aid in the therapeutic process.

Anyone can benefit from expressive therapy. Current literature on the subject emphasizes the benefits of art therapy for older adults in nursing homes and music therapy for people experiencing symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions, although research shows that these therapies are beneficial in almost every setting.

What is an expressive arts therapist?

When someone participates in therapy, the facilitator tends to monitor their growth and progression. They also help determine which creative outlet seems most suitable for each person.

Patients admitted into mental health facilities often participate in arts therapy as a part of their treatment plan. Arts counselors often work with patients in internal medicine units of hospitals and other public health facilities in conjunction with their main psychotherapy treatment, and organizations such as the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association exist to support these professionals.

Five types of art therapy are:

  • Drama therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Dance therapy
  • Journaling
  • Painting and drawing
Getty/AnnaStills
Expressive therapy can help cultivate good mental health

The creation of content

Expressive therapy tends to focus on creation. The counselor usually guides and observes the creative process and then works with the person after the content has been created. Depending on the given creative process, this can happen in a variety of ways. They may ask the individual questions about what the content represents and why they chose certain shapes, sounds, or colors. They may also request for the person to tell a story about the content.

What's the importance?

The work and content that a person generates can be indicative of their personality, their life circumstances, and their inner emotions. Sometimes, it takes longer for the counselor to uncover this with a person, but this process can have a significant impact, and counselors can monitor their progress and personal growth throughout the creative arts process.

Finding yourself through expressive arts therapy

For some, expressive therapy can be a peaceful and enlightening experience. When someone engages in the creative arts, they may learn which patterns, designs, colors, or words speak to them. Art therapy may help them learn about themselves and release feelings or emotions that they may not have been aware of. 

Where expressive arts therapy is most impactful

Peer reviewed studies on the benefits of art therapy (published by the American Journal of Art Therapy) dating back to as early as the 1970s support the theory that art therapy can be beneficial in treating mental health conditions, Alzheimer's disease, substance use disorder, trauma, and more.

Low self-esteem

Individuals who are experiencing low self-esteem may find art therapy to be particularly beneficial. Not only does it encourage creativity and expression, but it can also help a person find something that they enjoy doing outside of therapy. 

For example, a person who partakes in painting therapy may soon realize that they possess a knack for choosing color combinations. Likewise, someone who turns to writing may learn that they excel at creating content and expressing themselves through the written word. When you learn that you are artistically talented and are aware of your strengths, it may be easier to move past feelings of low self-esteem.

Stress

According to the APA, “Stress is a normal reaction to everyday pressures, but can become unhealthy when it upsets your day-to-day functioning. Stress involves changes affecting nearly every system of the body, influencing how people feel and behave. By causing mind-body changes, stress contributes directly to psychological and physiological disorder and disease and affects mental and physical health, reducing quality of life.”

If stress is not addressed, stress can result in chronic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, and more. For some, art therapy can be an effective way to confront stress and prevent it from developing into something more serious. 

Art therapy may help combat stress in a series of ways. It can provide a person with a healthy means of escape, allowing them to temporarily remove themselves from the situation they’re experiencing and subsequently put their energy into expression and creation. The process of creating something is also sometimes effective for clearing the mind, giving the individual space to later return to the situation better equipped mentally for finding an appropriate solution.

Trauma

When an individual has experienced trauma, it can have a serious and potentially dangerous impact on them. Depending on the circumstances, the healing process can take some time and require treatment. Extensive art therapy may provide someone with an outlet for expressing themselves and possibly uncovering internalized feelings and energy. 

Eating disorders

Many people believe that eating disorders are about food, but food is often only used as a tool for coping with larger struggles. Individuals who experience eating disorders often feel a lack of control over their lives and therefore turn to food as one area that they can control. For some, art therapy helps them uncover the origins of their difficulties and move past them.

As a treatment for eating disorders, not only does expressive arts therapy allow a person to participate in the creation of something new, but it also can help them develop a healthy sense of control. Any form of treatment, including art therapy, typically takes time to yield results. However, expressive arts therapy can provide a starting point for healing and help people realize that they can have control over the trajectory of their lives without using eating habits as a source of control.

Depression

People who experience symptoms of depression may find benefits in expressive arts therapy. It may help ease their symptoms and provide a potentially positive outlet for discovering purpose.  

As with other mental health concerns, depression may not automatically go away as soon as a person begins expressive arts therapy. Depression can take time to develop, and it usually takes time to heal. However, introducing a healthy, creative outlet into someone’s life can yield significant results, even if they take time to materialize.

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Pursuing counseling online

If you are interested in exploring this method of counseling, there are many options for treatment. Visiting a counselor in office is one option, but between busy schedules and the potential challenge of finding a counselor that offers the kind of counseling you would like to pursue, more patients opt to speak with a counselor online through platforms like BetterHelp. With online counseling, you can indicate your preferences for the type of expertise you would like your counselor to have, then you can meet with them from anywhere with an internet connection, including the comfort of your own home.

Research has shown online therapy to be just as effective as in-person counseling for a number of mental health concerns. In a review of 17 studies on the efficacy of online counseling, researchers consistently found online counseling to be just as effective as or more effective than face-to-face options. Patients also found online counseling to be more cost-effective and reported equal levels of satisfaction between the two.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Expressive therapy can help cultivate good mental health

Takeaway

Expressive therapy can consist of processing emotions and healing through creative methods such as visual art, dance, music, drama, writing, or other outlets. Creating something can bring about a sense of satisfaction, and the content itself can help therapists better understand what you’re going through. Expressive therapy has been known to help patients with conditions including depression, stress, low self-esteem, trauma, eating disorders, among others. For those looking to explore any type of counseling, online counseling can be a simple way to get started.

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