What is the difference between Expressive Arts Therapy and Art Therapy?


“What is the difference between Expressive Arts Therapy and Art Therapy?” is a common question posed by newcomers to the field of the creative arts.

Most likely you will have heard of Art Therapy… it is a more common place and well-known term for the therapy of working with art. In fact, for some, the two fields of Art Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy may be synonymous with one another. And Art Therapy does have some similarities to the Expressive Arts Therapy so who can blame you for referring to them as the same thing. (I mean, really…its not your fault! I myself was looking for clarification between the two field during my time in my training, and wasn’t the only one experiencing confusion over the two).


But despite the fact that there may be some comparable qualities, they truly are quite different. Expressive Arts Therapy is in a category all its own, and although it has not been around as long as Art Therapy, it is a revolutionary approach to healing through the imagination. Being a newer field does not mean that the EXAT is any less evolved or developed than Art Therapy, and it has had its share of influence in the healing modalities. More and more people are coming to know about Expressive Arts Therapy and it is growing in awareness and in its reach.


So what makes them so alike, you might be asking…


Both Art Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy evoke therapeutic technique and use the creative realm to heal. Both are intended to facilitate emotional well-being. Both involve a creative process to express one’s self in order to help individuals resolve issues and manage behaviors or feelings. Both have the potential to reduce stress, improve one’s emotional state, increase awareness and boost self esteem. Both incorporate talk therapy as part of the modality. Both use visual arts as a medium of therapy and use creativity as an outlet. Also, both do not require you to have artistic talent or be an artist to receive the benefits of working with the art. Admittedly…There is a definite cross over between Art Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy.


With both Art Therapy and Expressive Arts Therapy, the therapists are professionals trained in both art AND therapy. They may have knowledge of psychological theories, human development, clinical practice, be trauma informed and have awareness of multicultural and artistic traditions. Simply put… both Expressive Arts Therapy and Art Therapy use art to heal.  Both involve therapists who work with people of all ages and backgrounds: individuals, couples, families, groups and communities. Both have target markets who include individuals and groups, and in settings such as mental health, wellness centers, nursing homes, community outreach programs, rehabilitation, medical institutions and independent practices.


But this may be where the similarities end.


So what is Art Therapy?

Oxford’s dictionary definition of Art Therapy is as follows: a form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through painting, drawing, or modeling, used as a remedial activity or an aid to diagnosis. Note the use of the word “diagnosis”, as with Art Therapy there can be a pathologizing or looking for disease. This would imply the need to address and “fix” someone. Some art therapists (but not all therapists), not to be confused with Expressive Arts Therapy, may seek to interpret the client’s art and give it meaning as ascribed by either an authority figure or peer. A client of mine recently told me about her experiences with Art Therapy in the past where participants in a group setting put up their art work for review and had others comment and interpret it, leading in one instance to tears when someone’s art work was misconstrued and understood differently from their true intent. This can be dangerous and is not in alignment with building trust in the therapeutic relationship. It takes away the autonomy of the person and their right to find their own solutions within themselves.


So tell me more about what makes Expressive Arts Therapy (EXAT) so unique?


I’m so glad you asked…


EXAT is multi-modal and involves the full realm of the arts, not just visual arts like Art Therapy.

It can involve gesture, movement, dance, clay, puppetry, creative writing, journaling, poetry, theatre, performing arts, sand tray, photography sound or music. And of course, visual arts is part of the process, from painting to drawing with chalks, pens or pencils. With Expressive Arts Therapy, the therapist does not interpret or provide commentary on your art in any way shape or form. Unlike Art Therapy, EXAT does not simply provide you with things to draw and copy from living or inanimate objects. EXAT is not an art class. EXAT is not simply coloring in a coloring book as one might do with Art Therapy. Instead, EXAT uses prompts, games and exercises to challenge the status quo and help you see yourself and the world in a more authentic, animated, alive and supported way. EXAT introduces play and the imagination to approach life in a fresh way, opening up possibilities and allowing the image to be explored. EXAT introduces new view points that are so very different from the behaviorist approach utilized in our schools. Expressive Arts therapists pick up on the metaphors of the image as expressed through the arts and the creative process, helping clients to express that which may be difficult to express in words. Let’s say a client is inspired to explore nature and is curious about a tree they see out their window every day. We ask them to be the tree, dialog with the tree, draw the tree, move like the tree, be as big as the tree, make it more alive, sing the sounds of the tree and write a poem about the tree. A favorite phrase of mine is “let’s see what happens when you try ______?”. We are constantly sitting in curiosity and exploring our world through the senses.


There are many uses and benefits to working with an expressive arts therapist, as it can help with a variety of challenges. Expressive arts therapists will use their expertise to decide which modality should be used to customize the session for the client. In a single session, they may use techniques from their array of exercises or they may evoke other modalities, such as mindfulness, yoga or meditation. This is a careful consideration made by the therapist based upon “meeting the client where they are at”- or based upon the client’s current and most pressing needs and readiness for the work. While one client may like to talk for most of their session, another may prefer to use music, mask making or movement, or a combination of various arts during their therapy session. Having a variety of arts at the disposal of the therapist provides multiple ways for a client to find greater understanding and awareness of themselves on their pathway to healing. The work is integrative in this sense, and requires low skill with sensitivity to the therapeutic aspect of the creative experience.


Expressive Arts Therapy is for anyone and everyone.


Expressive Arts Therapy has proven to work wonders in children’s lives with developmental disabilities, or teens with bullying issues, or adults with addiction, mental health issues or dementia. It can help with chronic pain, eating disorders, infertility, anxiety, depression or self esteem. There are no limits to who can benefit from EXAT, except that of the imagination.