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Beyond Talking it Out: Unveiling Expressive Arts Therapy

Updated: Jan 7




When someone mentions "therapy," the first thing that might come up in one's mind is a client and their therapist conversing comfortably seated in a room. This image portrays the traditional therapeutic setting that involves "talking it out" or exploring and understanding the client's experiences by having them talk about their experiences. Although this setup has proven helpful for many populations, some find it challenging to emotionally release by talking about their experiences alone.

  

The setting facilitates the client's emotional expression by combining therapy with various forms of expressive arts, including dance, writing, music, visual arts, and drama. The therapeutic process here is aided by an alternative method of expressing one's experiences. This method is based on various art forms, imagination, expression, creativity, and active participation and is known as Expressive Arts Therapy. The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) defines this practice as integrating arts processes with psychology and community education, aiming to assist individuals in enhancing creativity, attaining clarity, and experiencing profound healing.


Facets of Expressive Arts Therapy


Expressive Arts Therapy branches out into five major domains :


  • Dance

Using dance as a therapeutic tool, EA therapists encourage their clients to use physical movements, yoga, and dance to express their inner experiences. Some basic therapy exercises incorporated here are the Melting Ice Cream exercise, Painting the world, and Movement metaphor.



  • Music

In therapy, the client creates notes and records lyrics and music with their therapist within a therapeutic relationship to address psychosocial, emotional, cognitive, and communication needs. ‘Therapeutic Songwriting’ is an exciting exercise that incorporates music into therapy. It includes a therapist purposefully engaging the songwriters in a creative process whereby they build a song that has personal meaning and leads them to self-discovery.


  • Art

Clients are encouraged to use visual arts to work through their emotions, thoughts, or experiences. Some common exercises include drawing and coloring mandalas, painting with fingers, clay sculpting, creating art with closed eyes, mask making, mosaic painting, and self-portraiture. Individuals who have faced emotional trauma, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression, and various psychological challenges can find value in expressing their thoughts via art.


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  • Writing and Storytelling

Writing is used to explore the client's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The most common writing exercises in therapy include writing poems, journals, and stories. The concept of Storytelling, on the other hand, involves a collaborative approach to creating. An appropriate example of the same is 'The Mutual Storytelling Technique.' In this, the therapist provides the client with a prompt and allows them to build a story. 


  • Psychodrama

Drama is incorporated majorly in a group setting where the clients explore their multiple roles, conflicts, and stressors in life by engaging in theatre techniques. These exercises, such as role-playing, improvisation, mirroring, and role reversal, are commonly used here.


Why choose Expressive Arts Therapy? 


By now, it is clear that Expressive Art therapy embraces a variety of art forms as a way to help clients express their emotions and work towards better mental well-being. 

However, what exactly makes people opt for Expressive Arts Therapy over the traditional therapy setup? 


Here is an excerpt from a brief interaction with a Play Therapist who has a personal preference for Expressive Arts Therapy over the traditional therapy setting.


What are your takeaways from personal therapy?


So I started taking therapy online and I had to sit in my own place and most of the time there would be someone in the house. Even though nobody could hear me, it would constantly bother me that maybe people could hear me, so that was a challenge. It was also challenging for me to convey things verbally. Like, when my therapist asked me to reflect on something, it was difficult for me to think and verbally express my emotions, I felt too much pressure. Additionally, the practice of Homework didn’t work for me because I don't fit well with deadlines. At one point it all sounded redundant and I couldn’t feel the relief that I was looking for. 


Do you think Expressive Arts therapy could be a better fit for you personally? Why so?


Yes, sure. I’m a very expressive person. From childhood I would do most things in a creative way. Like, if I had to convey something, I would make a greeting card rather than expressing myself verbally. I also dance, do theatre and paint, so in those spaces I get the opportunity to express myself without explicitly saying things out loud. 

In personal therapy, I felt like I had a filter on. But in Expressive Arts therapy, the acts of choosing colours, making patterns, putting paint on the paper, all are ways of expressing.  So in my supervision sessions for Play therapy, my supervisor uses creative techniques to talk about my clients. I get a feeling of autonomy there, so that really helps me to reflect and express adequately. 


Do you think Expressive Arts therapy indicates a specific population for itself? 


Yes, just like any other therapy modality, Expressive Arts therapy fits well with only a limited population.  I personally feel, for the people who choose Expressive Arts therapy, the meaning of art that they have matters. Like, I believe art makes life more meaningful, and gives an opportunity to escape reality. So for people who can make connections, formulate symbols and metaphors, and are reflective, Expressive Arts therapy can be effective.


Overall, Expressive Arts Therapy provides a unique pathway of introspection, self-discovery, expression, and healing through the diverse mediums of dance, music, visual arts, and more. These various mediums hold many fun and creative activities or exercises for clients to engage in and support their mental well-being. As with every therapeutic modality, Expressive Arts therapy is the first choice for some people and not all. People who enjoy connecting dots, communicate symbolically, and formulate metaphors, find it easier to express themselves creatively. Their creative process becomes a path to their emotional health. 


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