Expressive Arts Therapy as a Healing Modality


Expressive arts therapy is a multimodal therapeutic approach and may incorporate writing, drama, dance, movement, painting, and/or music. Clients involved in expressive arts therapy are guided by a qualified therapist to explore their responses, reactions, and insights through pictures, sounds, explorations, and encounters with art processes. A person is not required to have artistic ability but rather an openness to use various methods of artistic exploration.

The focus of expressive arts therapy is on the therapeutic effect of the creative experience, and it highlights the human capacity to transform thoughts, emotions, and experiences into tangible shapes and forms. The approach is described as “integrative” when different art techniques are used in combination with traditional therapy interventions and psychiatric medicine to promote improved health.

Expressive arts therapy is a relatively new modality, which started to be implemented in the 1970s. Use of the expressive arts gives another avenue, in addition to traditional talk therapy, to clients who seek deeper meaning, clarity, and healing, but it also transcends talk therapy by acknowledging that each person has a unique path for healing. While one individual may like talk therapy, another person may prefer to use journaling, dance, painting, or a combination of different experiences during therapy. Expressive arts therapy is especially helpful when working with children or adults affected by diminished mental capacity, extreme emotional trauma or traumatic brain injury.

The therapeutic impact of expressive arts therapy is focused on four major areas: expression, imagination, active participation and mind-body connection. Modalities such as art therapy, music therapy, poetry therapy, dance/movement therapy, and expressive arts therapy are all examples of creative arts therapy. While most of these techniques are based on a single art modality, expressive arts therapy integrates tools from many different art forms. The combination of a variety of arts-based disciplines creates a new way to treat mental health and development disorders, which is distinct from its individual components. Certified expressive arts therapists rely on their creativity and training in order to decide which modality should be utilized at a particular time.

Most expressive arts therapists choose to combine several techniques in order to provide the most effective treatment for the individual in therapy. Popular therapeutic approaches may involve the use of various drawing, art, movement or music techniques, including:

  • Finger painting
  • The squiggle drawing game
  • Collage making
  • Clay play or sculpture
  • Mandala coloring
  • Mask making
  • The blob and wet paper technique
  • Journaling
  • Automatic writing
  • Therapeutic dance movement
  • Using music for relaxation or creating music with instruments.

Expressive arts therapy may be used as a part of the treatment approach for a wide variety of behavioral, emotional, and mental health conditions. These include:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Eating disorders
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Highly stressful situations
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Posttraumatic stress
  • Chronic medical illnesses
  • Social challenges

One of the major criticisms of expressive arts therapy is the fact that when healing is reached, it is not always clear whether it occurred due to the creative process or due to positive interactions with the therapist. As current studies tend to focus on immeasurable qualitative benefits, a lack of quantitative evidence in support of the effectiveness of the approach is a concern. However, whether the results are a product of a distinct healing modality or simply due to a positive presence of a therapist, the benefits of expressive arts therapy are undeniable.

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