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Role Of Art Therapy In Addiction And Mental Health

Art therapy in addiction is a treatment method that takes advantage of the power of art to help people trying to quit addiction (often linked to mental health) to express themselves, their thoughts, and emotions that they are unable to express through words. A 2021 research published on Frontiers shows that art painting therapy reduces depression and anxiety symptoms. 

The benefits of art therapy in addiction include stress reduction, enhanced self-awareness, non-verbal expressions, improved self-esteem, helping to reduce trauma, and also preventing relapse.

Types of art therapy in addiction include sculpting, collage making, painting, drawing, mask creation, guided imagery and arts.

Art is a non-verbal process, and art therapy gives recovering people with addiction the opportunity to explore, understand, and resolve issues they have once felt uncomfortable speaking about in every talk session they have attended. 

What Is Art Therapy In Addiction?

Art therapy is a therapeutic practice that utilizes creative methods such as drawing, painting, and sculpting to help individuals struggling with addiction express themselves and explore their emotions. Engaging in this creative process helps reduce stress, enhances self-awareness, and promotes emotional healing. 

According to Falsafi, 2016, ‘Art Therapy and Its Role in Addiction Recovery,’ engaging in artistic activities allows individuals to process complex emotions without the pressure of finding the right words. 

This type of therapy provides therapists with insights into their patients’ emotional states and subconscious thoughts, deepening their understanding of the issues and behaviors associated with addiction. 

Lydia Aletraris et al.’s 2014 study, ‘The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs,’ states that art therapy is found in around thirty-seven percent of all treatment programs. 

Art therapy offers a potent means of support for individuals in addiction treatment by providing a safe and expressive outlet for emotions and thoughts. It allows them to address and work through feelings such as sadness, anger, or fear, which are commonly entwined with their addictive behaviors. It facilitates a collaborative exploration of artistic expressions between therapists and individuals, which is critical in fostering healing and recovery.

Who Created Art Therapy?

Art therapy was pioneered by Adrian Hill, a British artist, who coined the term in 1942 while recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium. Hill found that drawing and painting helped him cope with his illness, leading him to explore the therapeutic benefits of artistic creation. 

According to Hill, 1942, “Art Versus Illness,” art provided a means of expressing difficult-to-verbalize feelings, thus aiding in emotional healing. His experiences laid the groundwork for integrating art into therapeutic practices, making art therapy a recognized field.

The development of art therapy continued with significant contributions from Margaret Naumburg, an American psychologist often referred to as the “mother of art therapy.” Naumburg, 1950, “Dynamically Oriented Art Therapy,” emphasized the importance of spontaneous art expression as a form of psychotherapy, which could reveal unconscious thoughts and emotions. 

She believed that creating art could help individuals access deeper psychological insights, facilitating emotional and mental healing.

How Does Art Therapy Work In Addiction Treatment?

Art therapy in addiction treatment operates by providing individuals with a non-verbal, creative outlet to explore and express their emotions, thoughts, and experiences related to their substance use. 

According to Falsafi, 2016, “Art Therapy and Its Role in Addiction Recovery,” engaging in artistic activities allows individuals to process complex emotions without the pressure of finding the right words. This form of therapy helps in uncovering and addressing the underlying issues that contribute to addiction, such as trauma, guilt, or depression, thus promoting emotional healing and resilience.

Furthermore, art therapy facilitates self-reflection and enhances self-awareness, which are crucial for long-term recovery. By creating and reflecting on their artwork, individuals can identify triggers and patterns associated with their addictive behaviors. 

As stated by Haeyen, 2018, “Art Therapy and Emotion Regulation in Substance Use,” the process of creating art can help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and improve emotional regulation. 

This therapeutic approach not only aids in reducing the immediate symptoms of addiction but also equips individuals with the tools necessary for maintaining sobriety and preventing relapse.

What Are The Types Of Art Therapy In Addiction Treatment?

The 5 types of art therapy used in addiction treatment are collage making, sculpting, painting and drawing, mask creation, and guided imagery.

  1. Collage Making: According to Gussak, 2013, ‘Art Therapy for Substance Abuse,’ patients construct collages from magazine cutouts, photographs, and fabric, which aids in visualizing life aspects that influence their addiction. This process facilitates discussions about their desires, fears, and goals, offering insights into how these elements contribute to their addictive behaviors.
  2. Sculpting: Haeyen, 2018, ‘Art Therapy and Emotion Regulation in Substance Use,’ states that individuals use clay or found objects to sculpt representations of their emotions, challenges, or hopes, making their internal struggles tangible. This activity not only helps articulate personal barriers and achievements but also encourages introspection and a better understanding of addictive behaviors.
  3. Painting and Drawing: Painting and drawing provide a direct medium for individuals to express their emotions through the use of colors and forms. According to Horay, 2006, ‘Art Therapy in Addiction Recovery,’ these activities are powerful tools for releasing feelings and uncovering unconscious thoughts tied to their addiction and recovery process.
  4. Mask Creation: Mask creation involves crafting masks that allow individuals to explore and express different facets of their personalities, especially those they normally conceal. As noted by Franklin, 2010, ‘Art Therapy and the Use of Masks in Addiction Treatment,’ it’s an effective way to confront and understand the disparity between their public facade and internal realities, which is essential in the journey of addiction recovery.
  5. Guided Imagery and Art: Schouten, 2015, ‘Guided Imagery in Art Therapy for Addiction,’ states that therapists lead individuals through visualization exercises tailored to addiction recovery. Following these visualizations, patients create art that reflects their experiences, deepening their connection to personal challenges and uncovering new pathways to recovery.

What Are The Benefits Of Art Therapy In Addiction Treatment? 

The benefits of art therapy in addiction recovery include stress reduction, facilitating non-verbal expression, preventing relapse, reducing trauma, enhancing self-awareness, improving self-esteem, and offering emotional release. 

1. Non-Verbal Expression

In addiction recovery, especially during early sobriety, it can be challenging to speak about their experiences and emotions. Creating art provides an alternative, non-verbal mode of communication, which can be particularly therapeutic for those who struggle with traditional talk therapy. According to Malchiodi, 2013, ‘Art Therapy and Non-Verbal Communication in Addiction Recovery,’ art offers a unique means to express feelings that might be too painful or complex to discuss.

2. Stress Reduction

Engaging in art activities reduces stress and promotes relaxation. This is necessary for individuals recovering from addiction, as stress is a common trigger for relapse. Art therapy can serve as a healthy outlet to manage stress and channel emotions in a positive way. 

According to Kaimal et al.’s 2016 study, ‘Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making,’ 45 minutes of artistic activity will reduce the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in the brain by 75% in adults.

3. Art Therapy Help Prevent Relapse

With art therapy, the rate of relapse in recovering people with an addiction reduces significantly. According to Siegel, 2020, ‘Art Therapy in Relapse Prevention,’ art therapy substitutes a negative coping mechanism (using again) with a positive one. Before the advent of art therapy, someone struggling with addiction and trying to quit would have gone back to their favorite substance. Art therapy gives them something to turn to whenever they feel overwhelmed.

4. Reduces Trauma

Almost every addict suffers from trauma. Trauma and self-guilt are the main reasons people with an addiction resort to alcohol and several drugs to keep their minds off. Through drawing, painting, singing, dancing, and other visual expressions, trauma victims can release themselves from long-term guilt and trapped emotions, hence getting a clearer insight into their past experiences. According to Collie et al., 2006, ‘Art Therapy for Trauma and Addiction,’ art therapy is, however, more powerful when combined with traditional communication therapy.

5. Enhanced Self-Awareness

Through creating art and reflecting on their own artwork and the process of making it, individuals with addiction can gain deeper insights into their emotions and thoughts. This self-awareness helps them identify triggers, understand their addiction cycle, and develop strategies for staying sober. As stated by Moon, 2010, ‘Art Therapy and Self-Awareness in Addiction Recovery,’ art therapy fosters introspection and understanding of personal triggers and behaviors.

6. Improved Self-Esteem

Addiction often damages a person’s self-esteem and confidence. Art therapy helps rebuild these by providing a platform where individuals can accomplish tasks, solve problems creatively, and develop new skills. 

Each piece of art created is a tangible achievement that can boost confidence and reinforce a positive self-image. According to Slayton, 2012, ‘Art Therapy and Self-Esteem in Substance Use Disorders,’ art therapy provides opportunities for success and personal growth.

7. Emotional Release

Art therapy paves the way for a safe emotional release, which is essential for those who have used substances as a way to cope with negative emotions. The creative process can help bring suppressed emotions to the surface, allowing for a therapeutic release in a controlled environment. According to Riley, 2001, ‘Art Therapy for Emotional Release in Addiction Treatment,’ the act of creating art can help individuals process and release difficult emotions safely.

How Does Art Therapy Affect One’s Mental Health?

how does art therapy affect ones mental health

Art therapy can positively affect one’s mental health by reducing distress, improving cognitive performance, improving self-esteem, and building social skills and emotional intelligence. 

1. Reduces Conflict and Distress

Art therapy is a non-verbal means of expressing emotions. This form of expression can alleviate emotional conflicts and internal distress, making it easier for individuals to process complex feelings without the pressure of finding the right words. According to Malchiodi, 2013, ‘Art Therapy and Non-Verbal Communication in Addiction Recovery,’ art therapy provides a unique outlet for emotional expression.

2. Improves Cognitive Performance

Engaging in artistic activities stimulates the brain in unique ways, enhancing cognitive functions such as problem-solving, memory, and attention to detail. This cognitive engagement can lead to better mental agility and an improved ability to navigate daily tasks. According to Bolwerk et al., 2014, ‘Effects of Art on Brain Connectivity,’ art activities promote neuroplasticity and cognitive function.

3. Improves Self-Esteem

Completing art projects provides a sense of accomplishment and pride, enhancing one’s perception of their abilities and self-esteem. As stated by Slayton, 2012, ‘Art Therapy and Self-Esteem in Substance Use Disorders,’ art therapy fosters a positive self-image and confidence.

4. Builds Social Skills

Art therapy often involves group sessions in which individuals share a space and sometimes discuss their art and the feelings it evokes. This social interaction can improve communication skills, empathy, and the ability to work collaboratively. According to Haeyen, 2018, ‘Art Therapy and Social Skills in Addiction Recovery,’ group art therapy sessions help build interpersonal skills and connections.

5. Builds Emotional Intelligence and Resilience

Through art therapy, individuals learn to recognize and articulate their emotions, which is a critical component of emotional intelligence. Moreover, confronting difficult emotions through art builds resilience and develops healthier coping mechanisms. According to Moon, 2010, ‘Art Therapy and Emotional Intelligence in Addiction Recovery,’ art therapy helps individuals develop a deeper understanding of their emotions.

How Does Art Affect The Brain?

how does affect the brain

Art affects the brain in several ways, engaging various cognitive and emotional processes. The following are some of the effects of art on the brain:

  1. Neuroplasticity: Art stimulates the brain, promoting neural connectivity. Engaging in artistic activities enhances brain plasticity by creating new neural pathways and strengthening existing ones. This is crucial for cognitive flexibility, problem-solving, and memory. According to Bolwerk et al., 2014, ‘Effects of Art on Brain Connectivity,’ art activities promote neuroplasticity and cognitive function.
  2. Mental Exercise: Analyzing and creating art requires complex thinking skills, such as planning and problem-solving, which can improve overall cognitive function. Regular engagement in such activities can help keep the brain active and sharp, possibly delaying the mental decline associated with aging. As stated by Bolwerk et al., 2014, ‘Effects of Art on Brain Connectivity,’ engaging in art serves as a mental exercise that benefits cognitive health.
  3. Dopamine Release: Artistic engagement increases the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, which can boost mood, reduce anxiety, and alleviate depression. This response not only makes art a pleasurable activity but also potentially offers a protective effect against stress and depression. According to Stuckey and Nobel, 2010, ‘The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health,’ art engagement stimulates dopamine production, enhancing mood and reducing anxiety.
  4. Mindfulness and Focus: Creating or observing art can induce a state of ‘flow,’ a form of mindfulness where the individual is fully immersed and present in the activity. This state can significantly reduce the activity of the default mode network (DMN), the brain network associated with self-referential thoughts and mind-wandering, which is often linked to anxiety and depression. According to Malchiodi, 2013, ‘Art Therapy and Mindfulness in Addiction Recovery,’ art activities promote mindfulness and reduce anxiety.
  5. Sensory Integration: Art can stimulate the senses, providing a rich experience that leads to improved observational skills, attention to detail, and sensory integration. As stated by Stuckey and Nobel, 2010, ‘The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health,’ sensory engagement through art enhances cognitive and perceptual skills.
  6. Creativity and Expression: Engaging with art can help develop one’s creative abilities that are not only limited to artistic pursuits but also applicable to problem-solving in daily life and professional environments. According to Moon, 2010, ‘Art Therapy and Creativity in Addiction Recovery,’ art therapy fosters creativity and problem-solving skills.

How Does Art Therapy Help In Relapse Prevention?

Art therapy encourages self-expression and is a therapeutic mechanism for managing emotions that trigger a relapse, such as frustration, anger, or sadness. The act of creating art also serves as a distraction technique, helping individuals with substance use disorder divert their attention from cravings to engaging, productive activities.

According to Siegel, 2020, ‘Art Therapy in Relapse Prevention,’ art therapy provides tools and techniques for emotional regulation and coping with cravings.

Moreover, art therapy strengthens self-awareness and mindfulness, which are crucial components in relapse prevention. Through creating art, individuals gain insights into their own behaviors and triggers, allowing them to develop coping strategies that address these challenges directly.

Do You Need Prior Knowledge In Art To Benefit From Art Therapy?

You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of art-related aspects to benefit from art therapy; however, having previous knowledge would be a plus and make the process more effective. According to Malchiodi, 2013, ‘Art Therapy for Beginners,’ no prior art experience is necessary to benefit from art therapy. The objective is to freely express one’s emotions and experiences about addictions and mental health issues as one strives to overcome the whole problem. 

How Can You Find An Art Therapist Specializing In Addiction And Mental Health?

The best way to get in touch with art therapists is to contact health centers, rehabilitation centers, professional directories, art therapy associations, and addiction treatment centers. According to the American Art Therapy Association, 2021, ‘Finding a Qualified Art Therapist,’ licensed and certified art therapists have the necessary training and credentials to provide effective therapy. Make sure you choose a licensed and certified therapist that has a considerable number of clients and reviews.

What Is The Connection Between Art Therapy And Music Therapy In Addiction Treatment?

Art therapy and music therapy are both expressive therapies that promote emotional healing, self-expression, and cognitive development. These therapies offer alternative ways for people with substance use disorder to communicate feelings and thoughts that may be difficult to express through words alone, thus addressing the complex emotional and psychological challenges associated with addiction recovery. 

According to Silverman, 2018, ‘Expressive Therapies in Addiction Treatment,’ both art and music therapy focus on the creative process as a source of healing. In art therapy, individuals use visual media like painting, drawing, or sculpture to manifest their inner experiences, allowing them to confront emotions, identify and resolve conflicts, and enhance self-awareness. 

Similarly, music therapy involves engaging with music—whether through listening, songwriting, singing, or playing instruments—to process and regulate emotions, reduce stress, and strengthen coping mechanisms.

Can You Use Art Therapy Alongside Other Traditional Therapies For Addiction Recovery?

Yes, art therapy can be used alongside other traditional therapies for addiction recovery, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), and group therapy

According to Malchiodi, 2013, ‘Integrating Art Therapy with Traditional Therapies,’ art therapy complements traditional therapies by providing an alternative avenue for the participants to express emotions and thoughts that might be difficult to articulate verbally. 

For individuals in recovery, the non-verbal expression facilitated by art reveals underlying issues and emotions, offering additional insights for therapists and patients alike. This technique is useful in settings where individuals may struggle with conventional talk therapy due to emotional barriers or trauma.

Are There Any Limitations Of Art Therapy?

Art therapy is very effective for treating addiction and mental health issues. However, this approach is not very effective for people with severe cognitive impairment, acute psychosis, or some barriers preventing them from engaging in creative activities. 

According to Slayton, 2012, ‘Limitations of Art Therapy in Treating Severe Conditions,’ while art therapy is beneficial for many, it may not be suitable for everyone, particularly those with severe cognitive or psychological impairments.

Can Art Therapy Be Used In Group Or Family Therapy Sessions?

Art therapy can be applied in individual or group therapy sessions. It encourages shared or unified expression, communication, and bonding among everyone involved. Group sessions using art therapy establish a sense of community and mutual support. According to Haeyen 2018, ‘Group Art Therapy in Addiction Recovery,’ group art therapy fosters community and mutual support, essential for addiction recovery.

Ryan Wakim MD
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Dr. Wakim is a board-certified psychiatrist with a passion for and expertise in addiction, mood disorders, trauma-related disorders and the subspecialty of interventional psychiatry. He obtained his medical degree from West Virginia University where he also completed his residency training, finishing as chief resident. Dr. Wakim co-founded and served as the CEO of Transformations leading to a successful merger with Shore Capital in May 2021. He is purpose driven towards improving the standard of and removing stigma related to behavioral healthcare. Dr. Wakim enjoys golf, traveling and time spent with his two dogs, Lulu and Rayna.

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