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What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

September 15, 2022

As a therapist who specializes in expressive arts, I often get confused looks.  I know what art is, I know what expressive means, but expressive arts? What is that?

Expressive arts therapy (ExAT) is a multi-modal approach that integrates visual arts, writing, dance and movement, drama, music, and other creative outlets. It is not limited to one artistic discipline, and the primary means of expression may be visual, tactile, or auditory. Unlike art therapy, expressive arts therapy does not focus on the final product or interpreting the artwork. Instead, the emphasis is on the artistic process itself. This act of creating is used as a method for self-exploration and expression. No previous art experience is needed!

Expressive arts therapy is for everyone. Expressive arts therapists work with individuals and groups of all ages.

Incorporating expressive arts can help clients express themselves and connect with their body, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. ExAT can be used to provide support to those experiencing a wide range of issues and conditions, including family and relationship issues, anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, social and emotional issues related to disability or cognitive loss, life transitions, and general health & wellness. Those who have experienced trauma may especially benefit from expressive arts therapy. ExAT offers an alternative to verbally communicating and processing traumatic events.

Unlike a top-down approach, which focuses on parts of the brain associated with thinking, speaking, and current emotional awareness, expressive arts therapy is considered a bottom-up approach that focuses on the parts of the brain responsible for reflexes, memories, and automatic survival responses (fight, flight, freeze, fawn). Bottom-up approaches take into great consideration that traumatic memories are often held in the implicit memory systems of our body. Implicit memories have a significant impact on us and can trigger or activate us subconsciously. Often, present intense reactions are formed from implicit memories from the past. We cannot think or talk our way out of trauma. Expressive arts therapy is rooted in the mind-body connection and offers opportunities to explore by engaging in play, gestures, sound, art-making, improvisation, and imagination.

I encourage you to try this quick activity called body scan with visual art.

Part 1: Lay down or find a comfortable seated position where you can sense your body and breathe. Notice those sensations or emotions that you like or are pleasant to you. Next, notice any sensations you dislike or find unpleasant. Often, we “judge” what is happening in our bodies, label things good or bad and then try to avoid sensations that we feel are bad or unpleasant. At the same time, we often become attached to sensations or emotions that we label as good or pleasing. Instead of judging a sensation as good or bad, try to replace judgment with curiosity, as best as you can, as you stay aware of your inbreath and outbreath. Cultivate the spirit of loving curiosity inside your body as much as possible. Spend at least five minutes sensing sensations and emotions in the body.

Part 2: Draw an outline of your body on a blank piece of paper. Then, color and/or write where in your body you felt particular sensations or emotions. Take as much time as you like with this visual art segment, and let your intuition guide you in terms of what colors, shapes, images, or words you add to the outline of your body.

While this two-part exercise can be done on your own, they can also be helpful to process it with a therapist. Click here to request an appointment with a CFR Therapist