How Expressive Art Techniques Help Heal Your Clients

There are times words cannot fully express a problem, feeling, thought, or issue. Creative activities help access the intuitive, emotional, and nonverbal aspects of the mind.

According to the IEATA International Expressive Arts Therapy Association, “The expressive arts combine the visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing, and other creative processes to foster deep personal growth and community development.” The expression occurs when a client paints a picture, draws, creates a collage, dances, or sings a song. When clients allow themselves to laugh, let go, and relax, they can experience relief, which helps decrease depression, anxiety, and stress.

The purpose of expressive arts is to shift inaccessible emotions and process them. Think of thoughts and feelings as energy. Trapped energy can be channeled through creative activity and released. Unlike traditional art, expressive art is not about making a pretty picture. Although, you can end up with a beautiful piece of art in the end. The focus of this technique is on the process of expression, not a finished artistic product.

According to Jensen & Bonde’s (2018) research article published in Perspectives of Public Health, “Based on the growing evidence of the arts as a tool for enhancing mental health wellbeing, and in line with the global challenges in health, we suggest that participatory arts activities and clinical arts interventions are made more widely available in health and social settings. It is well-documented that such activities can be used as non-medical interventions to promote public health and wellbeing.”

Expressive art techniques can be offered through group or individual counseling sessions. It is most effective when the client has an interest in creativity. Expressive art techniques can be combined with many forms of psychotherapy treatments. Some of these are psychoanalytic, cognitive-behavioral, or humanistic. Creative methods can help clients who are children through older adults. It can be found in treatments for substance abuse, grief, post-traumatic stress, dementia, physical health issues, at the end of life, and more.

Art Holds a Space for Transformation to Take Place

The counselor’s role is to create a safe place for the client’s expression. This begins with the room and the counselor’s open and accepting attitude. It is best to supply a variety of creative tools and materials for clients to choose from.

The client is in control of how much he or she wishes to express, by what method, and when. If the work feels too overwhelming, encourage your client to put the art aside. The client decides, with the help of the counselor, when to re-enter the work. The page, paper, or room where art is created, holds the space for the client, as the counselor does in any talk psychotherapy session. For this reason, your client’s creativity can be a safe place for healing and accepting the pain inside.

Using Expressive Arts with Children

Children often do not have the verbal language to express their feelings or thought processes to understand complex or abstract concepts. For this reason, it is not unusual for children to not be able to discuss what they are feeling or describe a situation completely. Expressive art techniques give children the space to have a voice and be included in all forms of therapy, including family therapy.

From The Handbook of Art Therapy by Malchiodi (2003), “Talking at the end of a session about finished artworks is important and encouraging the child to communicate is useful for two reasons: (1) it helps the child to externalize thoughts, feelings, and experiences through both art expression and storytelling; and (2) it helps the therapist to better understand the child and provide the best possible intervention on behalf of the child. With children who are resistant to talking, art expressions can be a way to facilitate conversation through storytelling, pretend, and play activities. In fact, most children do not know what their art expressions mean but can, with the help of the therapist, develop imaginative narratives about the elements of a drawing or painting that reveal a great deal about their feelings, perceptions, and world views.”

How to Overcome Resistance

People often associate expressive art therapy or techniques with art class, a place where they were once judged on their creative performance. It is not unusual to experience resistance with adolescent or adult clients when you first introduce them to expressive art techniques.

In these instances, it can be helpful to educate clients about expressive art. Inform them it is not about making a pretty picture. The purpose of this type of treatment is to alleviate or decrease symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, trauma, insomnia, or chronic pain. Expressive art therapy is about the process, not the product.

Some counselors may also have anxiety or resistance to utilizing the creative arts or feel it is only for counselors who are artistic. It is essential for counselors to assess their own levels of comfort before offering expressive art techniques to their clients.

Remember, clients pick up on their counselor’s emotions too. If your client initiates a discussion or brings in creative art as part of the session, the counselor may need to consider including this as part of their work together or refer the client to a therapist who utilizes expressive art techniques.

Normalizing Play & Fun

Going back to play mode may remind clients of their childhood, this includes the joy but also the trauma that could have been experienced. Normalize these feelings and experiences. When traumas surface, address each instance.

Adults and adolescents often get hung up on the word “play.” Some people feel silly or awkward being creative and speak about feeling childish. As a therapist, you can reframe creativity using cognitive therapy.

One way to present creativity to older adults who enjoyed their childhood is to say, “Isn’t it good to go back to a time when play was fun?” For others, remind them how play is important for everyone, not just young kids. Reassure them that it is okay as an adult to have fun. Having fun increases coping skills and decreases stress.

Much like life, clients can learn if they stick through feeling uncomfortable, they will be okay. Remind the client it is not about making a work of art but rather finding an outlet for feelings. There are no right or wrong ways to do this. Educate them on the facts. Creativity and play help you relax, let go, and become open to new possibilities. If you or the client need to call it another word, go ahead but do not give up on the concept.

Expressive Art Techniques Help Clients

Identify and talk about a feeling – A client can use a creative activity to express anger, depression, or sadness within. Art helps contain these emotions and break them down into mentally digestible bits, which can be verbally expressed. People find healing by telling their stories in a different way, which reduces trauma symptoms.

Distract from symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, or stress – When a person is engaged in a creative activity, it distracts them from negative thoughts and physical pain. This can have a calming effect and can be used to self-regulate painful emotions.

Increases problem-solving skills When clients find different materials and organize them in new ways, they learn there are many ways to solve an issue or a problem. There are times clients find solutions through their creative work to issues in their lives.

Improve concentration and memory – Creative activities help clients focus by keeping their attention on the present moment activity. When a client is mindful in a creative activity, she or he experiences a sense of timelessness or an expanded sense of time. The client may say, “Where did the time go?” These are the moments the most healing happens because the client is absorbed in the activity. The client comes back to this moment renewed and refreshed.

Helps cognitive processing – Clients who identify feelings, thoughts, and ideas which were once beyond their reach, can integrate these experiences and move forward. Creative arts help clients who have adversity, process these unspeakable experiences and organize them within the brain.

Expressive Art Therapy Certifications

Anyone who has a master’s degree in counseling can use creative art techniques in their work. A person with this level of experience can say they utilize expressive art techniques. It is not ethical to claim you are an “expressive art therapist” without holding the proper education and training.

If you are interested in learning more about expressive art therapy, check with your state what the qualifications are to become an expressive art therapist. IEATA states, “To become a registered expressive art therapist, an International Expressive Arts Therapy Association ®member must meet rigorous criteria – including education, experience, demonstrated competencies, personal engagement in expressive arts therapy and letters of reference – and agree to abide by our REAT Code of Ethics.”

Their specific requirements can be found here on their website.

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Lisa Hutchison, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She works for professionals who want to treat and prevent compassion fatigue. With over 18 years of psychotherapy experience, she helps her clients assert themselves, set boundaries, and increase their coping skills. Her specialty is decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing realistic methods of self-care for those who help others. Ms. Hutchison’s psychological advice has been featured in Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post. Her articles have been published in numerous magazines, including Grief Digest and Today’s Caregiver.

Lisa is the bestselling author of I Fill My Cup: A Journal for Compassionate Helpers and a faculty member writer for NetCE. Her latest continuing education unit publication is “Setting Ethical Limits for Caring and Competent Professionals.” She has taught creative writing in colleges and presented on boundaries for the compassionate helper; the use of expressive art to heal grief, anxiety, and depression; inspirational and motivational topics; and creative writing techniques.