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January 29, 2020

What are Art Therapy and Expressive Arts?

What are Art Therapy and Expressive Arts?

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.

Expressive arts is a therapeutic tool often incorporated into treatment to complement traditional talk therapy. Expressive arts uses creative expression as a medium to share, process, and reflect on thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Those who guide clients through expressive arts 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 professional who guides the process. A professional 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 and expressive arts

Though various forms of art have long been celebrated for their healing qualities, contemporary art therapy and expressive arts are relatively new disciplines. 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 and expressive arts often combine the elements of self-expression celebrated by Hill with symbolic interpretation emphasized by Naumburg. In eating disorder treatment, expressive arts is frequently used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy, as well as meditation, movement, and mindfulness therapy.

Benefits of expressive arts

1. Reveal needs and feelings.

Expressive arts 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. A professional leading an individual through expressive arts can help identify what significance a particular color holds for them and use that as a prompt for conversation in conjunction with an individual’s therapist.

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. Expressive arts 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 later on 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.

Expressive arts 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 expressive arts 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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