Expressive arts therapy is a time-honored approach to healing that gives people from all backgrounds, especially those of us in recovery, a path forward for getting it out in as healthy a manner as possible. As the name of the modality suggests, expression is imperative. Some examples of expressive arts practices include but are of course not limited to:

  • Dancing & mindful movement
  • Visual arts (painting, drawing, collage, mixed media, pottery, sculpture)
  • Writing (short stories, novels, other fiction, poetry, scenes, memoir, other non-fiction)
  • Music (drumming, playing an instrument songwriting, making playlists and listening to music)
  • Drama and spoken word performances
  • Photography
  • Filmmaking
  • Fashion design & hair design
  • Cooking, baking, and other forms of food styling
  • Gardening

Did Music Therapy in Rehab Count?

While there are individual forms of therapy some rehabs encourage, there’s a reason I’ve chosen the path of practicing and becoming an expressive arts therapist.

In expressive arts therapy, we are encouraged to adopt an all of the above approach to the arts in recovery. Engaging in any combination of expressive arts practices—the multi-modality being a vital part of what defines formal expressive arts therapy—allows the metaphorical nature of the ocean within us to flow forth. This means combining dance/movement therapy, art therapy. music therapy and more.

Using all available tools for creative expression, we may be less likely to feel stuck and stifled because the world of our emotional experience has an outlet. This is a vital aspect of both trauma recovery and addiction recovery. The expressive arts challenge us to work with as many practices as we are willing to engage and to notice what the interplay between the practices may reveal.

Don’t Let Old Ideas Limit You

Does the idea of letting loose in a dance frighten you? Do you think you can’t draw a stick figure? Did you barely pass your language arts classes in school? None of that matters.

As a trauma-focused expressive arts therapist and expressive arts practitioner myself, I’ve heard all the excuses. I’ve even made some of them myself over the years.

The beauty of expressive arts and the multi-modal buffet of practices and options it inspires is that we can begin to practice expressive arts with whichever modality we are most comfortable. In fact, the real challenges and growth opportunities often arise when we endeavor to explore those practices we initially resist.

If your resistance takes the shape of “I’m not a very creative person,” I hear you and I relate. Many of us believe that to be creative, we have to be original and especially talented. Think of how the word expressive may feel different for you. We all have something to express, no? So why not embrace the use of any or all of the art forms I suggested earlier in the piece to let it out?

Here’s How to Start

The time has come! I recommend setting aside a significant amount of time and the following these instructions:

1) Identify the block or negative core message that you may experience around emotion. If nothing is coming up immediately, maybe use another negative message with which you struggle, especially around being creative or expressive.

I invite you to try out a sampler expressive arts practice to address whatever blocks may be coming up for you around your emotional world. Even at 16 years sober. I can still tell myself some very unkind things about my emotions and my right to express them such as “You’re too damn sensitive” or “If you show what you really feel, people may not like you.”

What internal message might you still carry about having emotions or being able to safely express them? Other examples can include: “I cannot show my emotions,” “I cannot let it out,” “It’s not safe to have feelings,” or “Emotions make me weak.”

2) Have some material nearby for drawing. A few blank pieces of paper and some markers, crayons or colored pencils or even a basic pen or pencil will do. Use what you have.

3) Take a moment to breathe and notice where you may be feeling any tension or stress in your body around the block or negative core message. Now give yourself at least five minutes (I suggest setting a time) to gush or free draw onto the page. Try to avoid using words. Stick to images or patterns, even if you are just scribbling.

4) Take a breath and notice your body. From here, perhaps put on a piece of music that’s on your playlist or (if you wish to take this a step farther) make a playlist using some songs that you find very expressive (think the ones you’re likely to sing to in the shower or the car).

Listen to the song completely through once. On the second time through, allow yourself to move to the music in whatever way feels expressive to you today. Even if you have physical injuries or limitation, consider what you may be able to do from a sitting position.

Complete the process by taking it to the page. Set your timer for five minutes or even 10, and allow yourself to free write (without over thinking it) any words or phrases that describe your experience. What did you notice? Might the words that flow out string into a poem? Or even  a reflective essay? Or just a collection of words that express just where you are at in the moment?

Lean on Your Team

If expressive arts practice is new to you, consider reaching out to a sponsor, a counselor or a trusted friend if you find yourself getting stuck or overwhelmed with any part of this process.

Show them this article if you’d first like them to check out what expressive arts is about before you share.

Please bear in mind that whatever you express genuinely is exactly what we are going after in the practice of expressive arts. This is never about creating pieces that you intend to hang in a museum or publish in a book (although if you’re called to share in that way, fair play to you!)