Expressive arts therapy is an integrative, multimodal approach that utilizes a variety of methods including writing, music, visual arts, drama, and dance to help people achieve personal growth. In this type of treatment, people work with a trained therapist who helps them explore and understand their reactions to their experience with different forms of expressive art.
It has been defined as a process of self-discovery that relies on artistic self-expression as a way to achieve emotional release.
This type of therapy is characterized by a focus on the creative process itself, utilizing a wide range of materials, and exploring a number of different techniques as part of a therapeutic intervention.
People who are experiencing mental health problems may have a difficult time interpreting or describing how they are feeling. The use of expressive arts can help people learn more about themselves and share what they are feeling in a therapeutic context.
Types of Expressive Arts Therapy
As a multimodal therapy, expressive arts therapy draws on a few different types of single-modal approaches. Four of the main types of creative arts that are often used in expressive arts therapy include:
Art Therapy: This approach involves utilizing the visual arts—such as drawing, painting, and sculpting—to work through emotions, thoughts, or experiences.
Dance therapy: This type of therapy involves utilizing physical movement and dance to help people cope with mental health symptoms such as anxiety, stress, and depression.
Music Therapy: This approach utilizes listening to or creating music to help improve mood and ease anxiety.
Writing therapy: This approach involves exploring thoughts and emotions through writing. For example, people may write in a journal about their life or create expressive works such as poems or fictional stories.
Expressive arts therapy is different because it integrates many of these techniques and incorporates a variety of tools instead of being limited to a single approach.
According to the Expressive Arts Therapy program at Appalachian State University, it is the healing actions of the artistic experiences themselves that set expressive arts therapy apart from more traditional, uni-modal approaches.
Therapists who practice expressive arts therapy may draw on a wide variety of techniques in order to create a treatment that is best suited to the individual's needs. Such techniques can include:
Painting or finger painting with acrylics or watercolor
Listening to music
In addition to utilizing the healing properties of self-expression through expressive art, professionals also incorporate psychotherapeutic modalities including psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, and mindfulness-based approaches.
What Expressive Arts Therapy Can Help With
Expressive arts therapy may be beneficial for a number of different mental health conditions. It can be used with both adults and children. Some conditions or concerns it may help include:
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Chronic medical conditions
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
This approach may also be useful when treating children who may not yet have the ability to describe what they are thinking or feeling.
Benefits of Expressive Arts Therapy
The use of the expressive arts can augment the benefits of talk therapy by allowing people to use the strategies that work best for them. For some people, talking about their experiences may be their preferred form of self-exploration. Other people, however, may benefit more from activities such as drawing a picture or writing in a journal.
According to the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA), this involves integrating arts processes with psychology and community education to help people improve creativity, gain clarity, and achieve deep healing.
While the use of some types of expressive art may be limited for various reasons including physical disability, many art activities are suitable for a wide variety of individuals and in different settings. Such activities can often be employed in any setting with only minimal supplies.