What is Art Therapy?

A woman painting a canvas while another woman looks on

When we think of therapy, we often think first of talk therapy—traditional psychotherapy that engages a client and a therapist in conversation. This treatment modality allows individuals to share their thoughts, emotions, and experiences in words. The therapist helps to challenge any distorted beliefs and attitudes, as well as to develop adaptive ways to cope. Both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) incorporate talk therapy techniques.

Art therapy is often incorporated into treatment as an alternative or complement to traditional talk therapy. Art therapy uses creative expression as a medium to share, process, and reflect on thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Art therapists are typically trained in art as well as psychotherapy, but participants are not required to be skilled or experienced in art. It simply requires a willingness to engage in a creative activity alongside a therapist who guides the therapeutic process. The therapist may gain insights from observing the individual before, during, and after art creation, as well as from examining the finished product.

History of art therapy

Though various forms of art have long been celebrated for their healing qualities, contemporary art therapy is a relatively new discipline. The formal practice dates back to the 1940s, when professionals in England and America began incorporating it into their careers and research. 

Englishman Adrian Hill, who coined the term “art therapy,” recognized the power of art while recovering from tuberculosis. Stunned by the benefit of self-expression to his own health, he promoted the practice to others, first to other patients with tuberculosis and then more widely in his 1945 book, Art Versus Illness.

Psychologist Margaret Naumburg, America’s “mother of art therapy,” began referring to her work as art therapy in the mid-1940s as well. Naumburg valued art for its symbolic meaning, or its ability to reveal the emotions and thoughts of its creator. Today’s art therapy often combines the elements of self-expression celebrated by Hill with symbolic interpretation emphasized by Naumburg. In eating disorder treatment, art therapy is frequently used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy, as well as meditation, movement, and mindfulness therapy.

Benefits of art therapy

1. Reveal needs and feelings.

Art therapy allows the exploration of needs and feelings beyond the reach of our immediate senses. It provides a way for individuals with eating disorders to connect to these hidden, less conscious elements and unearth them for further exploration. Color in art, for example, is often attached to particular emotions. An art therapist can help individuals identify what significance a particular color holds for them and use that as a prompt for therapeutic work.

2. Express needs and feelings.

Many individuals with eating disorders find it difficult to express their needs and feelings in words. They may relay vulnerability or emotional tension by using disordered behaviors instead. Purging, for instance, may feel temporarily cathartic in its illusory ability to relieve sadness, shame, stress, boredom, and other unpleasant feelings. The behavior may feel like a release—a letting go of the heaviness of these emotions. 

Art provides a safe alternative to this self-destructive release. It too doesn’t require words, but what’s more, its expression doesn’t harm the body. Instead of purging, individuals might scribble with reckless abandon, releasing their emotions on the page. Doing so may help them symbolically and emotionally draw out their pain and anxiety.

3. Address fears and attitudes.

Successful treatment addresses the fears, beliefs, and attitudes underlying an eating disorder. Art therapy provides a safe space to challenge several such factors, including perfectionism and rigidity. Given art’s lack of clearly defined rules and structure, practicing art is an opportunity to manage the desire to be perfect. It’s a space to operate without strict instructions or to hide behind any “right” verbal answers. 

To create art is to proceed without rules. A prompt to draw life with an eating disorder, for example, has no “right” answer. Though the activity may be uncomfortable for those who find safety in specific directions, it provides an opportunity to process these feelings with a trained therapist. Together the individual and therapist can discuss what it means to lean into this vulnerability and confront imperfection, a recovery skill that will transcend any specific art project. 

Art therapy may be valuable to recovery as another language for identifying, expressing, and challenging the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that characterize an eating disorder. At The Emily Program, we combine art therapy with traditional psychotherapy methods to provide specialized care that works best for you. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please call us at 1-888-364-5977 or visit our Get Started page for help.  

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