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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; such a therapeutic tool can help initiate change. For some people who have a hard time articulating what they are feeling, self-expression through art can be useful. Expressive arts therapy draws from a variety of art forms, and this integration of methods can help patients access their emotions. Meanwhile, art therapy tends to be based on one particular art form.

Expressive arts therapy has been studied in nursing care settings and can be an effective modality for patients.

When It's Used

Expressive arts therapy is used with both 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. This type of therapy can be especially useful for children, who may not be able to vocalize what they feel. The therapist observes the child’s behavior and impulses and then encourages the child to talk about the experience.

Journaling, storytelling, reading literature and poetry, as well as making life maps, videos, and memory books are all forms of expressive art therapy; this can help more mature clients review and make meaning of their lives; this is a way to tell their life stories, as well as work through and heal from traumatic experiences. It also helps patients better engage with family and other significant people in their lives.

Here are some of the many forms of expressive art:

  • Playing music
  • Listening to music
  • Writing lyrics
  • Theater or improvisation
  • Reading or writing poetry
  • Journaling
  • Reading fiction
  • Drawing
  • Painting or fingerpainting
  • Sculpting
  • Dancing
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What to Expect

Expressive arts therapy can be accomplished via the creation of different art forms; the commonality is the use of multiple senses to explore your inner and outer worlds. A therapist or counselor helps you communicate feelings about the process and accomplishment of making art, and together, you use the creative process to highlight and analyze problems and difficulties. The therapeutic work is based on the creative process, not on the final result, therefore, it is not necessary to have a background or training in the arts to benefit from this expressive 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, the Greek root word for poetry, which refers to the natural process of moving from everyday expectations into the world of imagination and creativity that results in art-making. Art comes from a deep emotional place within you, hence, creative endeavors will 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; your creative process becomes your road to emotional health. Many therapists also incorporate other modalities such as cognitive-behavioral or mindfulness-based cognitive therapies.

What to Look for in an Expressive Arts Therapist

Screen your potential therapist either in person or over video or phone. During this initial introduction, ask the therapist:

  • How they may help with your particular concerns
  • Have they dealt with this type of problem before
  • What is their process
  • What is the treatment timeline

Psychotherapists, counselors, and teachers with standard qualifications can use different forms of creative arts therapy in their work. With certain training, mental health professionals can be registered with various institutions. There is normally a minimum requirement of a master’s degree in expressive arts therapy, psychology, fine arts, education, or a related field, and depending on one’s educational background, there are supervised clinical work and advanced training along with references and other requirements. Check with your insurance carrier for coverage of this type of therapy.

Ellen G. Levine and Stephen K. Levine. (ed.) Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2011.
International Expressive Arts Therapy Association.
The effectiveness of expressive arts therapies: A review of the literature, Psychotherapy and Counseling Journal of Australia
Levine, SK. The Tao of Poiesis: expressive arts therapy and Taoist philosophy. Creative Arts in Education and Therapy. 2015; 1(1):15-25
Art Therapy for Psychosocial Problems in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Narrative Review on Art Therapeutic Means and Forms of Expression, Therapist Behavior, and Supposed Mechanisms of Change
Art making and expressive art therapy in adult health and nursing care: A scoping review, International Journal of Nursing Sciences.  
Last updated: 10/14/2022