What is Expressive Arts Therapy?
By Jayme Sampler, LCMHC-A
When we listen to what our soul needs, sometimes it whispers, “Let me create something. I want you to listen to what I have to say.”
According to my alma mater, Appalachian State University, “Expressive Arts Therapy is the practice of using storytelling, dance, music, drama, poetry, dreamwork, visual arts, and other artistic modalities in an integrated way to foster human growth, development, and healing. It is about reclaiming our innate capacity as human beings for the creative expression of our individual and collective human experience in artistic form. It is also about experiencing the natural capacity of creative expression and creative community for healing. Expressive Arts Therapy is different from other creative therapies such as Art Therapy or Music Therapy as it emphasized the interdisciplinary use of multiple art modalities.”
In simpler words, Expressive Arts Therapies give the creator (client) space to find what works best for them as an individual, and it focuses on the process of creation, rather than the product.
Expressive Arts Therapy allows our unconscious minds to open and observe what comes to the surface- without judgment. Because Expressive Arts Therapy uses a lot of different modalities, we are not boxed, and not being boxed into a specific thing we need to do in therapy gives us a lot of freedom to grow.
When given the space, we may open a door to the past, see things from a new perspective, or un-stick something we have been struggling to move past. Other times, it can allow us to do something as simple as coping with what is happening in the therapeutic process. I work with a lot of kiddos and it can be so helpful to say “Hey, there’s some markers and paper right here. Why don’t you draw a picture of [insert a situation that was hard], and then we can talk about it?” This gives them the space to let out some of that overflow of emotion and bring them back down to a level where they can effectively talk about it.
What it all boils down to is this: when we let ourselves explore our creative side and use it to our advantage, we give ourselves room to not be perfect.
If you like the statistical side of things, rather than just take my word for it, here’s some research! Expressive Arts Therapies have been linked to lessened behavioral issues in school-aged children1, an increase in positive coping skills2, lower stress levels3, personal growth, increased self-awareness, better communication skills4, and so much more.
1Dunphy, K., Mullane, S., & Jacobsson, M. (2014). The effectiveness of expressive arts therapies: A review of the literature. Psychotherapy and Counselling Journal of Australia.
2Henderson, D. A., & Gladding, S. T. (1998). The Creative Arts in Counseling: A Multicultural Perspective. The Arts in Psychotherapy
3Squillante, AnnaRose, “Teachers’ Stress and the Benefits of Expressive Arts Therapy: A Critical Review of the Literature” (2019).
4Vaartio-Rajalin, H., Santamäki-Fischer, R., Jokisalo, P., & Fagerström, L. (2021). Art making and expressive art therapy in Adult Health and Nursing Care: A Scoping Review. International Journal of Nursing Sciences