The Expressive Arts in Substance and Mental Health Treatment

If you need treatment for substance or mental health issues, a variety of options are available to help you. Some of these options are considered frontline treatments. This means that they form the heart of your recovery program. However, not all valuable treatments are frontline options. Others are complementary or secondary. They do not take a lead role in your treatment plan. Nevertheless, they can enhance your recovery and contribute to your overall success.

One such complementary option is expressive therapy. This is the umbrella term for a group of therapies that use creative expression as a recovery tool. It might seem counterintuitive to view self-expression as a useful method of treatment. However, research shows that many forms of expressive therapy can help support your recovery in their own way.

What Is Expressive Therapy?

The term expressive therapy refers to the use of the creative arts in a healthcare context. Specific possible contexts for this form of treatment include:

  • Addiction or mental health counseling
  • Psychotherapy
  • Healthcare in a hospital or a similar setting
  • Various forms of rehabilitation

Expressive therapy is based on the well-established importance of creative expression in two key areas. The first of these areas is life in general. The second is the healing of significant health issues. The urge for self-expression is probably innate to humans as a species. Expression for health purposes dates back to at least the time of ancient Egypt and Greece. And the use of art for general expression predates modern humans altogether.

Formal use of expressive therapies began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, this use started at roughly the same time as the development of the field of psychiatry. However, even then, expressive therapy was viewed as a secondary form of treatment.

Expressive therapies are valuable because they do two things. First, they support and add to the effectiveness of frontline treatments like medication and psychotherapy. They also have several beneficial features that are not always available through other means. These features include:

  • A heavy reliance on self-expression as a tool for self-exploration
  • An emphasis on your active participation in the process
  • Engagement of your imagination
  • A focus on the connection between your body and your mind

In expressive therapy, the point of treatment is not creating artistic masterpieces. Instead, the emphasis is on the process of self-expression itself. This means that you do not have to be skilled at your chosen form of expression. In fact, you do not need to have any experience at all.

During therapy, your therapist may make comments or observations. However, the goal is not to provide an artistic critique. Instead, your therapist will consider your work in terms of your unique process of self-exploration and recovery.

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Types of Expressive Therapy

There are a few types of expressive therapy. Some of these therapies are rooted in well-known, established fields of art. Examples in this first category include:

  • Music therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Dance/movement therapy
  • Drama therapy
  • Poetry therapy

Other expressive therapies are based on less formal kinds of expression. Examples in this second category include:

  • Play therapy
  • Sandplay therapy

In addition, there are programs that combine two or more forms of formal or informal expressive therapy.

Types of Artistic Expression

Each therapy has its own types of artistic expression. For example, in music therapy, you do things such as:

  • Write songs
  • Create improvised music
  • Play music-based games
  • Analyze song lyrics

In art therapy, common activities include drawing, painting and sculpture. In dance and movement therapy, you follow a set series of body movements or create your own. In poetry therapy, you listen to, read, write or analyze one or more genres of poetry.

Sandplay is a form of therapy that requires you to form temporary pictures in a small sandbox. These pictures often include different kinds of miniature figures. Play therapy is a treatment for children that relies on the natural human urge to play, explore and imagine.

The Process of Therapy Using Expressive Therapy

Each type of expressive therapy uses its own specific process to meet its intended goals. This process depends, in large part, on the nature of the artform or activity. For example, in art therapy, your therapist may ask you to draw something that expresses your memory of a past event. In music therapy, you may work by yourself or with others to create a song. In dance/movement therapy, you may create a dance that expresses your emotional state.

Whatever the type of work you create, your therapist will discuss the end result with you. Again, this is not the kind of critique you would receive in a standard art class. It is an exploration of things such as:

  • Your verbal or non-verbal communication
  • What the finished work means to you
  • How you feel about that piece of work
  • Your therapist’s observations of what your work might say about you

As a rule, these discussions are collaborative, not confrontational. They are designed to support you. Their ultimate goal is to provide you with a therapeutic treatment benefit.

Potential Benefits of Your Chosen Therapy

Each expressive therapy has its particular potential benefits. For example, art therapy is intended to help you do such things as:

  • Resolve conflicted emotions
  • Lower your anxiety levels
  • Become more self-aware
  • Gain better control over your behavior

The goals of music therapy include improving your mental state, physical state and ability function socially. Dance/movement therapy relies on the mind-body connection to help improve:

  • Your day-to-day behavior
  • The ways you typically feel and think
  • Your physical well-being
  • The integration of your thoughts, emotions and body movements

What Does Expressive Therapy Treat

Expressive therapy can be used as part of treatment for multiple kinds of health problems. For example, both art and music therapy can play a role in the treatment of substance use disorders, or SUDs. This is the modern term for any form of substance addiction or serious substance abuse. Art therapy and music therapy can be used on their own for this purpose. In addition, they can be used together.

Art therapy is also used in the treatment of a variety of mental illnesses other than SUDs. The list of these illnesses includes:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Major depression and other depressive illnesses
  • Schizophrenia

This is important, in part, because anxiety disorders and depression are common and widespread. Schizophrenia is far less common, but typically severe when it occurs.

Are Expressive Therapies Evidence-Based Practices for Mental Health

Today, the best substance and mental health treatments are evidence-based. This means that they have a firm grounding in the findings of high-quality study and research. Are expressive therapies evidence-based practices?

The general answer to this question is yes. There is considerable evidence to support the usefulness and effectiveness of expressive therapy. This evidence comes from a wide range of sources gathered over decades of research.

Some expressive therapies have been studied more thoroughly than others. Probably the most well-researched options are art therapy and music therapy. These therapies have been examined repeatedly, especially as treatments for SUDs and other mental health issues. There is clear evidence to support their usefulness.

Finding Your Voice With Expressive Therapy

In addition to their stated purposes, expressive therapies may benefit you in other important ways. One potential benefit is helping you find your creative voice. Many people are taught that creative expression is only for professionals or other trained practitioners. For this reason, they never explore their own potential to make personally fulfilling art.

During expressive therapy, you learn that the point of art is not living up to someone else’s standards. Quite the contrary, art is a tool of self-expression and self-exploration as old as humanity itself. Whether or not you ever show your work to anyone else, the practice of art can deeply enhance your everyday life.

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Learn More About Expressive Therapy at Emerald Isle Health & Recovery

Expressive therapy is a modern complementary health treatment with ancient roots. It takes advantage of the innate creative abilities found in all people. When these abilities are nurtured in a therapeutic setting, they can help you grow and change in important ways. Specifically, they can help support your recovery from even severe substance or mental health issues.

The goal of expressive therapy is not to turn you into a great artist. Its purpose is to provide benefits that support frontline treatments such as psychotherapy and medication. Research shows that expressive therapies are effective in this supporting role. Not everyone who receives them will see positive results. However, these results happen often enough to make expressive therapy a valuable recovery tool.

Want to learn more about how you can benefit from art therapy and other expressive options? The experts at Emerald Isle can help. We understand the importance of using every available resource to support your substance and mental health recovery. That includes customized expressive therapy suited to your individual needs. To learn more about our available therapy options, contact us today. We will gladly help you integrate these options into your larger plan for both short- and long-term recovery.