How to Tell if Expressive Art Therapy is Right for You

Many clients new to therapy wonder about what type of therapy will best treat their presenting concerns. Some people are familiar with talk therapy, which involves talking and sharing with a therapist who then provides insight, identifies patterns in the client’s thought processes, and helps them effectively process their issues. However, some clients find that talk therapy doesn’t help them. Other people have difficulty with feeling on-the-spot during talk therapy and freeze up. Talk therapy can sometimes feel like endless venting without a plan or an end goal. Clients can end up feeling frustrated and stuck, especially when the client presents with a history of trauma. Trauma often merits utilizing other therapeutic modalities where the therapist and client can dive more deeply into the presenting issues.

That’s where a modality like expressive art therapy can be helpful. Expressive art therapy is when a therapist uses any combination of artistic forms like writing, visual arts, drama, music, or dance to bring about healing, emotional growth, and wellness. Clients can focus on one form of artistic expression such as writing or art or make use of several forms simultaneously. Clients who would benefit from expressive art therapy either already have an interest in creative outlets or would be willing to explore them.

This might be the first time you’ve heard of expressive art therapy, and you may be skeptical. Expressive art therapy may feel off-putting because it differs from what you’d expect in traditional therapy. Or you might think: “I’m not an artist,” “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not creative.” You might even wonder how being creative can possibly help you feel better.

One of the theories behind how expressive art therapy helps is that when clients stay more cognitively-oriented or logical (“stuck in their head”), as in traditional talk therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy, they’re not processing the full depths of the trauma they’ve experienced. However, moving to a different form of self-expression (besides talking) that uses the brain differently is another way to delve deeper. Some people additionally find expressive art therapy to be a gentler, less confrontational way to process their traumatic experiences.

Here’s how it works: a client sits with something they’re anxious about in the therapy session. The therapist might say something like: “think of a time when you felt anxiety—recall the situation and the emotions it brings up.” Then the client starts to doodle on a piece of paper. She may make any type of marks on the paper, and we call that mark-making, rather than more formal “drawing,” which can be off-putting to some clients. She adds any colors, shapes, or textures that resonate with her.

Then the client and therapist talk about what is it like internally for the client as she creates, and what feelings come up. The therapist may ask the client some questions, such as what colors would she use to represent certain feelings. In this way, expressive art therapy activates and engages different parts of the brain. If you’re the kind of person who feels blocked in traditional talk therapy, this can be a great alternative to try.

How do you decide what artistic medium to choose in your therapy session? That really depends on the person and what type of expressive art therapy they’re open to exploring. Often, clients will start out simply doodling their experiences or creating a mandala. Doodling is less intimidating to many people than actually creating art. Remember that it’s not about the end product, it’s about the process of creating it. The foundations of expressive art therapy include developing awareness, gaining insight, actively tapping into your subconscious, processing emotions at a deeper level, and revealing deeper emotions beneath the surface. If you’d like to learn more about expressive art therapy and how it can help you heal and grow, please call 260-449-0489 to schedule an appointment.

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