Expressive Arts Therapy
What is Expressive Arts Therapy (EXAT)?
Expressive Arts Therapy (EXAT) is the use of various art modalities in a counselling session to help patients with wellness and mental health struggles. Expressive Arts therapy is a therapy of the imagination. It presupposes that we each have a capacity for play – it is when our lives are lacking in play that we experience ill health and may feel duress in a psychological/physical/mental/spiritual realm. Its goal is to use art as a catalyst to help patients start a conversation with their therapist. Then, through guidance, the aim is to help the patient achieve their own self-awareness and healing. The hoped-for result is an inward change that allows the patient to cope with their life in a new, healthy way. The method can be used for all ages and backgrounds, and is particular helpful in assisting those who suffer from trauma.
When you engage in EXAT, you’ll have similar goals as when engaging in other forms of therapy (such as talk therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, psychotherapy and so on). However, this form of therapy uses different methodologies to achieve those goals. The processes of creating various types of art are used to help you heal the soul.
You see, some of us may not be as articulate as others. We may not have the right words to explain our feelings, motives or desires to a therapist, or even to ourselves. But, Expressive Art Therapists believe that words are not the only way to express oneself. Sometimes, the inner ‘wisdoms’ about what we’re going through can be expressed through the process of art. Art is believed to have the ability to evoke the unconscious, and to ‘bring forward’ our inner state of being. Then, the words may come to us more easily, from which we can begin to heal.
In other words, EXAT helps you draw out what is inside of you (pun not intended!). It is the ‘bridge’ between you and your therapist, and the factor that stirs conversation.
Do I need to be artistic to get benefits from Expressive Arts Therapy?
No! Absolutely not. This is a big misconception.
With EXAT, it is not the end result of the art project that matters. Rather, it is the process. You will not be in counselling sessions to learn how to be an artist, nor to perfect your artistry skills. That is not the point. And, artful skill is not necessary to partake in this form of counselling.
Instead, during the creation of art with your Expressive Arts Therapist, you are coached to come to revelations about yourself. For example, you may have an instinct to draw a certain image, or write a certain line of poetry. What comes out of you in that process can say a lot. So, it is not about being able to take home a masterpiece at the end of a session. Read more here about how to get past the inner critic and why anyone (including you!) can do Expressive Arts Therapy and Art Making.
What type of art would I be creating in Expressive Arts Therapy?
When we mention “art” in the context of Expressive Arts Therapy, we don’t just mean visual arts. In other words, it’s not only the creation of paintings or sculptures that can help people heal inwardly. It can be poetry, dance, music, drama, photography, puppetry, sand tray, mask making, and so on.
Some Expressive Arts Therapists may focus their own skill on certain types of art, but that does not mean any art form is excluded in the practice at large. Many EXA Therapists use multiple art modalities during the course of their work with a client (it is customary to use multiple types of art in a single session).
In some ways, you are also the ‘art director’ – you can provide input into your art modality of choice, and play a role in deciding what shape you want your art to take in this form of counselling. Expressive Art Therapists can ‘meet you where you’re at’ in this regard. They should be more than willing to accommodate your comfort level regarding what art forms you delve into.
However, you should know that part of the therapeutic process is in being challenged, and exploring new things. In EXAT, that may mean very gentle nudges to try an art form you may not be used to, or historically, have not enjoyed. All without pressure though!
Why do you call it Expressive Art(s) Therapy and not just, “Art Therapy”?
This is something most people can get confused about, and we deeply empathize!
Expressive Arts Therapy is not the same as Art Therapy.
Art Therapy, which is based in visual arts, is traditionally focused on finding out what is wrong by pathologizing, based on a diagnosis of a specific mental or psychological condition. It aims to give you interpretations of your art, and an Art Therapist may give advice in the process. Art Therapy is also is limited to the visual arts, whereas Expressive Arts Therapy encompasses the full range and realm of the arts. We believe this helps, as it provides more options for art exercises, modalities and expressions.
Expressive Arts Therapy focuses on the experience and stimulation that art creation gives a person. It is about helping you come to your own realizations through your own metaphors – there are no ‘decoding’ mechanisms set forth by an Expressive Arts Therapist. There are no ‘“fix it’” lists.
If an Expressive Arts Therapist doesn’t diagnose me, how can they help me?
The EXA Therapist is an agent in your own healing, but actual healing comes from you.
One of the big ways an EXA Therapist helps is by providing a safe, confidential space to discover your own self. This physical and mental space is dedicated to helping you become more aware of who you are, and what is lurking inside you – all the things blocking you from overcoming your personal, internal obstacles.
Regular Expressive Arts Therapy appointments help you get away from all the distractions and routines of ‘life.’ It’s a time to just be your true self – even if only for 1 hour a week. This is essential in the healing process; you have to take that first step to actually address your inner battles. You need to carve out time for it (pun not intended, again!).
There is also a lot to say for being heard. An Expressive Arts Therapist is there to be a listening ear, and to honour and acknowledge your voice. But this is not the same as being a friend that you’re just venting with (but those times are great too!). An Expressive Arts Therapist is trained to guide you to the next steps of healing your frustrations.
You’d be surprised, but when you express yourself in an ‘out loud’ way (though, not just through voice), you can see for yourself how big or small your own struggles are. You may discover a truth that you didn’t know about yourself. Your problems come into perspective.
Sometimes, the Expressive Arts Therapist will summarize back to you what they believe you’ve concluded about yourself. This can help further help you come to your own realizations, and to find your own ‘inner voice.’ The practice of EXAT respects that you do have the answers – you just need to find them by looking within.
And yes, revealing your thoughts to a person can be embarrassing, and scary, to admit, too. But once they come out, it helps to have the right guidance on where to take your mind process next. In other words, where to keep self-discovering.
An EXA Therapist helps you keep that ‘door to your soul’ open, by using their intuition to lead you down new expressions via art. They help you get a look at yourself from ‘outside the bubble’ of your own mind, where everything may seem like it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
In reality, what you know as your ‘usual’ may be far from ‘normal’ or ‘healthy.’ And that’s where it helps for you to see it on your own, instead of someone else merely giving you a label, or telling you what your mental health problem is.
But, the process of EXAT doesn’t stop at just knowing, or becoming self-aware. The healing has to take place too. And that takes work. An EXA Therapist can help you learn how to properly express your emotions ‘in real life,’ and get back to living.
How long does Expressive Arts Therapy take to work?
There isn’t necessarily and ‘end point’ with Expressive Arts Therapy, as in all therapies. You don’t always come to a point where you can say “I am now fully healed.” Healing can be ongoing. And as you work with your therapist, you may discover more that needs to be worked on (concerning your mental health or inner struggles). Some may find it helpful to make therapy a part of their regular life routine. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The same way you have to keep eating healthy to stay healthy in the body, you also need to continuously ‘feed your soul’ to keep your mind healthy.
It’s also important to note that some of the effectiveness of this therapy can only really accelerate when you’ve ‘let down your guard’ and begun to trust your EXA Therapist. That alone can take time. In fact, in can take about 3-4 sessions just for the therapist to get to know you and your background, and to thus be equipped with the knowledge needed to help you. And so, it is encouraged to stick with one EXA Therapist as much as possible, and as long as you feel comfortable with that person.
What happens in an Expressive Arts Therapy session? What am I supposed to do?
While each session is uniquely customized for a client, here are some of the typical activities you may experience in Expressive Arts Therapy:
In the office, you’ll see a lot of art supplies. There may be tools for drawing, collaging, sculpting, fantasy, imagery, creative dramatics, music, movement, kinetic sand, fabric, storytelling, writing, photography and even games. Expressive Arts Therapy is multi-modal, meaning that many art forms are used, and can transition into one-another.
You and your EXA Therapist will have a short discussion about where you’re at (emotionally, and psychologically). Before delving into any art, you may start with a bit of meditation, relaxation or somatic (body oriented) exercises.
Then, based on that, your EXA Therapist will ask you to start writing a poem, tell a story, paint a picture, or whatever the day may have in store (and yes, you can help decide which art form you want to pursue). There will be a subject you’ll be asked to create the art about. An example ‘assignment’ could be to write a letter to your future self, or to do a role play exercise. Or you may come to the session with a particular concern, which we will attend to. Each session is customized to your individual and unique needs.
Expressive Arts Therapy can have an element of fun to it. You’ll get to use your imagination to paint, write, sculpt etc. The art you create is all based on your present inspirations, just like when you were a kid. It’s a space where there is no such thing as the ‘wrong’ way to do art. There is no expectation to complete a task. EXAT is very open-ended and open-minded, while still being well-thought-out.
After say, drawing, you may then move on to poetry, or dance, as time allows.
You might be asked to talk about what you’re creating (so yes, talking is still part of it!). Questions may come up to help you turn your abstractions and metaphors into concrete thoughts. For example, you may be asked, “what does that sound like?” or, “where in the body do you feel that sensation?” or, “If this object could talk, what would it say to you?” and so on.
Other times, the intuition of the Expressive Arts Therapist will be to remain silent, and to let you explore…these times of uninterrupted ‘flow’ are just as important. Remember, the whole aim is to help you come to your own realizations.
The session will wrap up with an exercise to ‘release’ your thoughts and energies. We also summarize the session and prep you for returning back to ‘real life.’ That is where you can then, hopefully, learn to practice facing your challenges with the new realizations that have come about in the session. With your permission, the Expressive Arts Therapist may also give you ‘homework’ to do during the week. This can be simple, such as trying to write a letter from right hand to left hand, or writing a poem (rhyming and ‘form’ not necessary!).
And if you feel like you can’t do it, or you feel that you’ve had a failure, that’s ok! That’s what the next session is for! We’ll just pick up and keep going!
Is Expressive Arts Therapy geared towards a specific age group or condition?
Expressive Arts Therapy can be used for both children and adults alike. Some EXA Therapists may specialize more in certain type of clientele. However, the practice, in principle can be applied to any age group.
That said, Expressive Arts Therapy is specifically geared towards those who have undergone trauma. Through the art that is created and spoken about in the sessions, an EXA Therapist helps a client form their own, healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the effects of the trauma. For example, a client may learn how to self-soothe, or to ‘be in the present’ and ‘come out of the past.
Is Expressive Arts Therapy right for me?
Not sure about whether or not to take the jump? Find out more on what Expressive Arts therapy has to offer. To determine is Expressive Arts therapy is the right fit for you, visit this page.
Expressive Arts Therapy Guidelines
- It is the journey and the process that matters most
- We are not focused on the outcome or product
- We paint/draw/write spontaneously and expressively as we did as children
- There is no “right” way to do the arts
- Explore in a curious, open ended, receptive way
- Seek to express your feelings and inner world through the art
- Use art in a personal way
- No special ability or disability required
- No judgement or interpretation of the arts work
Do’s and Don’ts of Expressive Arts Therapy
- give yourself permission to allow whatever comes up to happen
- allow the space to go inward and be quiet within
- trust the awareness and insight you receive through the work getting in touch with your senses
- allow your mind and body to integrate
- let your brain relax and wander, find rest in the art
- listen to yourself and get in touch with your inner wisdom
- don’t expect major shifts right away
- don’t try to solve every life problem in one session
- don’t think too much about how it works or what you are doing
- don’t analyze what you are doing through the art
- don’t stay too focused on the head or mind
Art Supplies Available:
- Oil Pastels
- Chalk pastels and pan pastels
- Guache paints
- Water soluable pens, pencils and crayons and inks
- Morph and slime
- Pencil crayons
- Toy figures and sand tray
- Acrylic Paints and Inks
- Canvases and brushes
- Pencils and charcoal
- Scizzors, glue and collage elements
Expressive Arts Therapy Links