Art Therapy in Addiction Recovery
Art therapy is a very useful tool in addiction recovery. It can be used during as an evidence-based addiction treatment during detoxification and throughout the recovery process.
“Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing.” - Julia Cameron.
Art is a means of self-expression. Art therapy is a vehicle for us to channel our emotions while being supported and guided along the way.
It allows us to bring to the surface and understand emotions. Emotions that we may have suppressed or numbed during our active addiction.
It helps us learn how to face difficult emotions without being overcome by them.
Not everyone adapts to talking therapies. This is where alternative mediums such as art therapy come into play. This form of therapy is especially helpful for those who have an underlying issue that fuelled their addiction, such as trauma or abuse.
Art therapy is non-confrontational, and there are many types of art therapy for treating addiction. It can be enjoyable and can become a regular part of life in recovery.
You don’t need to be an artist to reap the benefits of art therapy. It isn’t the final piece of artwork but rather the process of creating that can unveil so much insight.
What Is Art Therapy?
British artist Adrian Hill officially coined the term art therapy after reviewing its benefits in sanatoriums. Art therapy has been used to help treat substance abuse specifically since the 1950’s.
Elinor Ulman, one of the pioneers of art therapy, was one of the first to use art therapy for substance abuse. She published the findings of her work at the Alcoholic Rehabilitation programme of the District of Columbia in 1953. Art therapy is now used across many treatment programmes as an alternate form of therapy.
During the drug or alcohol recovery process, there is so much happening within, that it can be difficult to put into words. An inability to cross that bridge can keep a person in limbo during the recovery process. Finding other ways to communicate thoughts and emotions can help break through that barrier and progress along the recovery journey.
The Unique Value of Art Therapy in addiction recovery
Art therapy is an experiential form of therapy that allows us to channel our thoughts and emotions through various mediums. Materials such as paint, pencils and clay are often used in the process.
It can help us express things that we may feel shameful about, or things that are too painful to recount with words. It can help us look at how we really feel about something, as art is essentially our subconscious outside of ourselves. Whilst exploring these difficult emotions, the practice of creation provides a calming blanket. It also helps with focus.
Art therapy is a complementary form of therapy. It is practised in a group or in an individual setting and is guided by a trained practitioner.
Creativity is therapeutic in itself, but help from a qualified art therapist can be sought initially to gain the maximum benefits. You also don’t need to be a skilled artist to gain value from art therapy for substance abuse. All you need is a willingness to try.
Conditions Art Therapy Can Help With
Art therapy can be helpful for a variety of conditions. Many of these conditions are comorbid with substance abuse. This means that they are simultaneously present. These conditions can either contribute towards substance misuse or develop as a result of substance misuse. Either way, they often require additional treatment, especially when they are a root cause.
Art therapy has been used since 1945 to help war veterans cope with the trauma resulting in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It can also help those who have experienced trauma, including sexual assault or childhood abuse.
Art therapy is used as a healing treatment for children who survived the trauma of war. The visuals that manifest are a way to convey the horrors they have witnessed.
Art therapy is also used to...
- help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety
- assist those in eating disorder programmes
- help people move through grief
- improve the mood of prison inmates
According to a study in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, a session of art therapy that lasts as little as 45 minutes reduces stress levels.
Finding the Right Type of Art Therapy for Your recovery
There are many different types of art therapy for treating addiction throughout the recovery process. It’s helpful to experiment with different types in order to find the right fit.
Art therapy doesn’t only include painting, it extends to drawing, sculpting, scrapbooking, colouring, and photography.
There are also many different ways that the therapist can employ art based on your needs and where you are in the healing journey.
Below are just a few of the many forms of art therapy to explore:
In this form of art therapy, the therapist encourages the client to express their thoughts and feelings by creating a piece of art. The purpose of this form of art therapy is to prompt the client to go deeper into their inner world and bring forth whatever is causing discord inside.
This process involves the client using a fluid medium, such as paint, to help illustrate feelings of being out of control or self-destructive. Being able to view this experience outside of oneself in the form of art can help us finally acknowledge our need and desire to attain sobriety. Seeing this visually can help create a visual representation of where we truly are internally.
During an art therapy session using active imagination, the client has full freedom to create whatever they’d like. During this process, the therapist asks questions that tie back to emotions and thoughts, connecting the artwork with the inner workings of the artist.
During this process, the client doesn’t create the work with their own hands but rather, guides the therapist in doing so. While instructing the therapist about what to paint, the client has an opportunity to express in words what he or she is thinking and feeling. This can be especially helpful to those that really need a supportive hand to express their innermost feelings.
The Benefits of Art Therapy for Addiction Recovery
There are so many benefits of art therapy for addiction recovery. Studies show that creating art has an impact on brain wave patterns and can increase levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is often called “the happy chemical.”
A study published in The Arts in Psychotherapy in 2018 demonstrated that art therapy actually decreased levels of pain in 200 hospitalised patients, while also improving their mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety.
Art therapy can help us feel empowered in our recovery by coming to realisations and moving through emotional difficulties without the use of substances. Being able to visually see our emotions and thoughts in front of us in the form of a piece of art can help us then verbalise what is happening in our inner world.
In a group setting, it can help us understand ourselves and our peers better, realising that we aren’t alone in experiencing our emotions.
Additional benefits of art therapy for addiction recovery:
- Fosters mindfulness
- Non-confrontational approach
- Increases self-esteem
- Improves social skills
- Reveals and heals emotional blockages
- Encourages creativity
- Prompts self-discovery
- Encourages relaxation
- Reduces substance cravings
- Reduces feelings of isolation
- Fosters creativity
- Encourages perspective
- Improves communication
- Assists with concentration
- Reduces anxiety and stress
- Appropriate for anyone, at any age, regardless of beliefs, ability, or education
- Helps reconcile emotional conflict
- Acts as a safe medium for self-expression
- Teaches emotional regulation and release
One of the most poignant benefits of art therapy for those in recovery from addiction is that at times we can feel “muted” by our emotions, literally rendering us speechless. On other occasions, thoughts may be so rapid and erratic that we cannot make sense of what is truly going on. Grabbing some art materials and just drawing, painting, scribbling, or writing words on paper can help to alleviate the stress we feel inside. At the same time it brings us back into the present moment. This means of self-expression can provide immediate release, even without sharing our artwork with anyone else. Much in the same way that some in recovery will express their feelings through poetry, art can be a valuable tool.
Does Art Therapy Really Work in Treating Addiction?
Research shows that practising art therapy while in addiction recovery helps decrease shame and denial. It also provides an outlet for communication and reduces resistance to treatment.
A study from the Journal of Addictions Nursing showed that 36.8% of rehab programmes offered art therapy as part of their treatment plan. Although art therapy is a powerful way to reveal and bring forth our emotions, this is only one part of the therapy puzzle.
Rehabs that offer art therapy will often use it as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, rather than on its own. This includes engaging in something like CBT-based talk therapy or 12 step meetings, for instance. A varied and bespoke treatment plan provides the most all-around, in-depth understanding and healing.
Art therapy provides a break from intensive talk therapy and allows the subconscious to express itself. Once we have an understanding of what is going on deep beneath the surface, we are able to use that to create true, lasting change within ourselves.
Practising art therapy can lead to self-reflection, personal breakthroughs, and emotional healing. If it calls to you, it may prove to be an invaluable asset to have along your journey through addiction recovery.
Author - Thurga
- Using Art Therapy to Treat Addiction - https://oxfordtreatment.com/addiction-treatment/experiential-therapy/art/
- The Healing Power of Art Therapy for Addiction - https://sanalake.com/blog/the-healing-power-of-art-therapy-for-addiction/
- The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4268880/
- Art Enhances Brain Function and Well Being - https://www.healing-power-of-art.org/art-and-the-brain/
- The History of Art Therapy - https://adelphipsych.sg/the-history-of-art-therapy/
- Art Therapy: Another Way to Help Manage Pain - https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/art-therapy-another-way-to-help-manage-pain-2018071214243