Expressive Arts Therapy

“Art can be said to be – and can be used as – the externalized map of our interior self” — Peter London

What is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Expressive arts therapy uses art, music, movement, and writing within a supportive therapeutic environment to bring about self-awareness and resolve emotional conflicts. It is a non-verbal method of using art to express feelings and thoughts which can lead to self-discoveries that ‘talk’ therapy alone may not tap into. Thus, it can be a powerful tool to aid in the therapeutic process of healing. It can help with symptom relief and affective-behavioral changes.

Ultimately, it is using the creative process to improve one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. I specifically focus on art therapy as a modality of treatment; it is a type of psychotherapy rather than a “class” with a “instructor”. In fact, no art experience is necessary as it about the expressing and releasing of one’s feelings as an alternative form of communication.

Cathy Malchiodi in her book, The Art Therapy Sourcebook writes, “In most art therapy sessions, the focus is on your inner experience – your feelings, perceptions, and imagination. While art therapy may involve learning skills or art techniques, the emphasis is generally first on developing and expressing images that come from inside the person, rather than those he or she sees in the outside world.” It is about using the creative process for deep inner healing and personal growth.

As an expressive arts therapist, I am trained to use art to achieve clinical and personal goals. Art therapy combines traditional psychotherapeutic practices with an understanding of the psychological aspect of the creative process, especially how various art media impacts a person affectively. That is, there is knowledge about the possible emotional and mental impact of art media on an individual struggling with a particular issue.

There is much research that supports the benefits of art therapy in resolving a myriad of issues including reducing stress, improving self-esteem, and gaining more emotional balance. In addition, art therapy has been found to be effective in use with clinical issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and addiction. For example, with trauma, there is evidence that traumatic experiences are encoded in the form of images. Visual art then offers a unique way to express these traumatic images in order to be released from them. I assert that there is healing power in the creative process of art making; it can be profoundly transformative.

How does Expressive Art Therapy work?

There is usually a two-step process involved in art therapy. The first is the creation of art based on a directive in the session. The second involves reflecting on the art product and one’s process involved in making the art. Sometimes underlying messages communicated through one’s art is explored. Color, images, symbols, and form are languages that speak from the unconscious and have particular meaning for each person. As written by Natalie Rogers, “we express inner feelings by creating outer forms”. I am trained in Person-Centered Expressive Arts Therapy which is more concerned with one’s own meaning and process rather than on using art for diagnostic or interpretative purposes. The art pieces become a visual record of one’s journey and progress in the treatment, unique to this treatment modality.

Some examples of art therapy directives include the following:

Grief/Loss: Create a “Collage Pot” – Select images from magazines which convey aspects related to a specific loss

Family of Origin: Use different shapes and colors with construction paper to designate the relationships between family members

Anxiety or Depression: Take color pastels and draw how you experience the anxiety or depression in your body

Addiction: Create a collage about your addiction and the impact on your life or ‘What would your life look like if you were in recovery?’

Life Review: Past, Present, & Future collage; “What was the issue like for you in the past and now in the present?” “If you could make some changes what would that look like in the future?”

Inner vs. Outer Persona: Create a mask that reflects feelings or a persona that is portrayed to the outside world and on the inside of the mask, feelings and experiences that are more internal or private (this can also be done with a box – the inner and outer self)

Journal therapy prompt – Inventory: do an assessment of life balance in the major areas of living

Journal therapy prompt – Unsent letter: write a letter to express one’s thoughts & feelings to a person that will not be sent

Journal therapy prompt – Goodbye letter to one’s addiction: write a letter giving thanks to how the addiction helped one survive but also saying goodbye to the addiction as this help is no longer needed

The art directive emerges from the issues being addressed in the therapy sessions and often are very specific to the individual.

Expressive Art Therapy Resources

To obtain further information about expressive arts therapy, check out some of the following resource links and books:

The Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy Malchiodi, MA, ATR,
The Creative Connection: Expressive arts as healing by Natalie Rogers
Art Heals: How creativity cures the soul by Shaun McNiff
Journal to the Self: Twenty-two paths to personal growth by Kathleen Adams
The Artist’s Way: A spiritual path to higher creativity by Julia Cameron
Life, Paint, and Passion: Reclaiming the magic of spontaneous expression by Michele Cassou & Stewart Cubley – International Expressive Arts Therapy Assoication – American Art Therapy Association – Art Therapy – Soul Collage – Intuitive or Process Painting – Stewart Cubley’s Process Painting Experience – Chris Zydel’s Wild Heart Painting (Intuitive Painting) – Expressive Arts Workshops – Creative Guide through the 12 Steps

Art Journaling & Mixed Media Art

The Art Journal Workshop by Traci Bunkers
Art Journals & Creative Healing: Restoring the spirit through self-expression by Sharon Soneff
Creative Awakenings: Envisioning the life of your dreams through art by Sheri Gaynor
Cultivating Your Creative Life by Alena Hennessy
Taking Flight: Inspiration and techniques to give your creative spirit wings by Kelly Rae Roberts
Art Journaling magazine by Somerset Studios – Art Journaling

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