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July 24, 2022

Can Art Therapy Play A Role In Addiction Treatment?

Art therapy is a treatment approach that integrates therapeutic techniques with different types of art. The goal of this unique approach is to help improve individuals’ well-being. As individuals draw, paint, scrapbook, or create other works of art, they’re free to address any pain or express any emotional needs they may have.

Unlike traditional talk therapy, art therapy lets people manage their feelings and express their desires in an indirect, subtle, and non-confrontational way. In addition to making people feel more comfortable, art therapy can help reduce anxiety, boost self-awareness, and increase self-esteem as individuals resolve emotional conflicts and develop healthy social skills.

Since substance misuse tends to have a connection to trauma and emotional pain, learning to process overwhelming emotions in a manageable way is an essential step towards long-term recovery. That’s why many behavioral experts believe that art therapy can play an important role in addiction treatment.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy uses creative techniques to help people express themselves artistically, examine their art's psychological and emotional undertones, and grow from what they discover. Even though people have used art as a form of self-expression for centuries, using art as a treatment approach is relatively new.

The term “art therapy” was first used by Adrian Hill, an English citizen who used the term to describe the benefits he experienced painting as he recovered from tuberculosis. Soon afterward, mental health professionals were encouraged to include art in their therapeutic work. Today, many people recognize art therapy as an evidence-based treatment for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and more.

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as therapeutic art-making that aims to help people heal from trauma, illness, and life challenges. A background in the arts or artistic talent isn’t necessary for people to experience healing. But individuals must be open to the creative process and willing to engage in the sessions to benefit from art therapy. A study in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association reveals that a 45-minute art therapy session can reduce stress levels. Art therapy can also help individuals:

  • Explore feelings
  • Reconcile and heal emotional conflict
  • Manage addiction and other harmful behaviors
  • Develop and improve social skills
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Reduce anxiety

Common Types of Art Therapy

There are many different types of art therapy. Generally, the most appropriate option depends on the individual’s preference. Regardless of the medium, the goal is the same: to express feelings and dig deep into experiences not typically discussed in everyday conversations.

Some of the most common forms of art therapy include:

  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Coloring
  • Woodcarving
  • Scrapbooking
  • Making collages
  • Taking photographs
  • Sculpting and using clay

Other forms of art therapy involve:

  • Music
  • Dancing
  • Writing
  • Poetry
  • Acting
  • Digital art

What Happens During An Art Therapy Session?

Art therapy sessions typically begin with an initial assessment and conversation. During this time, the therapist introduces themselves and asks the individual about their specific goals, experiences, and what they’re hoping to gain from art therapy. After getting to know each other, the art-making process begins.

The art created in therapy sessions can be independent or collaborative. The therapist will encourage and guide participants to explore any underlying emotions, experiences, or memories that arise during the creative process.

Once the art-making process has ended, therapists will help individuals discuss the feelings, thoughts, emotions, and experiences that came up during the creation process. The therapist will also observe and discuss the created artwork. The point of the questions is to help the individual explore, address, and start to heal. Typically, this process repeats itself until an individual has addressed the challenges that brought them to therapy and learned how to manage new challenges in a healthy, helpful way. This process can be beneficial for people grappling with substance abuse and addiction challenges.

How Art Therapy Can Help Support The Addiction Recovery Process

Addiction treatment typically includes detoxification, individual and group therapy, family counseling, 12-step meetings, and peer support groups. Art therapy can help support this process by giving individuals a break from talk therapy's direct, intensive work. In addition to assisting individuals in expressing their subconscious mind creatively, research shows that art therapy can benefit the recovery process by:

  • Decreasing denial of addiction
  • Increasing motivation to change
  • Providing a safe outlet for painful emotions
  • Decreasing the shame of addiction

Art therapy can also help individuals in recovery:

  • Talk About Challenging and Emotional Topics In A Non-Threatening Way. Participating in an addiction treatment program can be challenging. One of the most challenging parts of addiction recovery can be talking to strangers about some of the most vulnerable aspects of life. It can be jarring and uncomfortable, making individuals want to stay quiet. Refusing to talk through challenges and past experiences can impede the recovery process. Luckily, talking about artwork can be a less-threatening way for individuals to open up. The more individuals speak with a therapist, the more comfortable individuals will likely become, which can help them warm up to other aspects of addiction treatment.
  • Self-Reflect And Be Honest About Their Past Pain and Destructive Habits. Art therapy can help individuals see the changes they’re making in recovery. Self-portraits can encourage individuals to think about themselves honestly. Making art about their lives can also help individuals stop denying their reality and realize their need for continued treatment, counseling, and healthier habits.
  • Manage Cravings By Triggering A Healthy, Natural Dopamine Release. Cravings don’t stop when the detoxification process ends. Many people continue to experience cravings long after they quit using a substance. Not knowing how to deal with these cravings properly can derail the recovery process and lead to relapse. Luckily, painting, drawing, using clay, writing poetry, sculpting, and woodcarving are creative and pleasurable activities that encourage the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that helps people feel good. When the brain releases dopamine, an individual’s well-being improves. Improved well-being can help individuals resist cravings and stay motivated.
  • Improve Their Self-Confidence. Self-confidence is an essential part of addiction recovery. If individuals feel they have little to no control over their lives and are incapable of doing anything productive, they can become more susceptible to relapse. Seeing artwork they completed can help improve their confidence. The more confident individuals feel, the more hope they will have that they can recover. That hope can help propel them toward long-term recovery.

In short, art therapy helps support addiction treatment by assisting individuals in getting into a state of mind and emotional well-being conducive to recovery success.

A Unique Way To Recover From Addiction

Here at Meta, we believe in real recovery for real people. That’s why we offer flexible outpatient treatment programs that incorporate individual and group counseling, family therapy, and 12-step meetings.

We also believe in the healing power of art. That’s why we also encourage people to try art therapy. Drawing an aspect of your life can help you set healthy, realistic goals. Creating a self-portrait can help you start thinking about who you want to become. Painting about your emotions can help you realize your need to forgive yourself or others that have hurt you. The process of creating art, in general, can help you heal from past pain and rediscover yourself.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. Contact us today if you’re looking to incorporate unique forms of treatment into your recovery journey. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.