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Expressive Arts Therapy

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Expressive arts therapy combines psychology and the creative process to promote emotional growth and healing. This multi-arts, or intermodal, approach to psychotherapy and counseling uses our inborn desire to create—be it music, theater, poetry, dance, or other artistic form—as a therapeutic tool to help initiate change. The difference between expressive arts therapy and art therapy is that expressive arts therapy draws from a variety of art forms, while art therapy tends to be based on one particular art form.

When It's Used

Expressive arts therapy is used with children and adults, as individuals or in groups, to nurture deep personal growth and transformation. For instance, expressive arts therapy for children with behavioral issues might include music, movement, or finger painting. The therapist observes the child’s processes, behavior, and impulses, and then encourages the child to talk about the experience. Journaling, storytelling, reading literature and poetry, and making life maps, videos, and memory books are all forms of expressive art therapy that can help older clients review and make meaning of their lives, and to tell their life story, as well as help them engage with family and other significant people in their lives.

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What to Expect

In expressive arts therapy, you use multiple senses to explore your inner and outer world through the experience and creation of different art forms. Your therapist or counselor helps you communicate your feelings about the process and accomplishment of art making, and together, you use the creative process to highlight and analyze your problems and issues. Since the therapeutic work is based on the creative process, not on the final result, it is not necessary to have a background or training in the arts to benefit from expressive arts therapy. Throughout the process, you learn new and different ways to use the mostly nonverbal language of creativity to communicate inner feelings that were not previously available to you by simply thinking or talking about them.

How It Works

At the core of expressive arts therapy is the concept of poiesis, a Greek word that is the root of the word poetry, which refers to the natural process of moving from everyday expectations into the world of imagination and creativity that results in art making. Because art comes from a deep emotional place inside you, creative endeavors enable you to undergo a profound process of self-discovery and understanding. Creativity becomes the pathway to the expression of inner feelings, leading to a process of self-discovery and understanding. In other words, your creative process becomes your road to emotional health.

What to Look for in an Expressive Arts Therapist

Psychotherapists, counselors, and teachers with standard qualifications may use some form of creative arts therapy in their work, but only those with specific training can be registered by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) and call themselves expressive arts therapists. Registration by the IEATA requires a minimum of a Master’s degree in expressive arts therapy, psychology, fine arts, education, or a related field and, depending on the educational background, supervised clinical work and advanced training at an approved expressive arts therapy institute, along with references and other requirements. Qualified and registered expressive arts therapists agree to a code of ethics and to maintaining high standards of professionalism in the field.

Ellen G. Levine and Stephen K. Levine. (ed.) Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2011.
Levine, SK. The Tao of Poiesis: expressive arts therapy and Taoist philosophy. Creative Arts in Education and Therapy. 2015;1(1):15-25
International Expressive Arts Therapy Association.