Healing through Expressive Arts

By Sarah Engelskirchen-Bugler, MA, LMHC

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

This quote by Thomas Merton illustrates that art is a powerful tool not only for self-discovery but also for developing a profound sense of wonder, imagination, and creativity. For as long as humans have existed, art has provided a way to access, process, and express a wide spectrum of emotions and experiences in ways that verbal speech may not always be able to supply. In addition, the expressive arts span across culture, time, and demographics; therefore, all individuals and communities are able to benefit from tapping into this transformative method of healing.

Expressive Arts Uses

The expressive arts offer a multitude of uses ranging from alleviating mental health symptoms and processing trauma in a safe and effective manner to self-reflection and meaning-making of personal experiences. Modalities within the expressive arts realm include but are not limited to visual art, writing, music, drama, movement, and other somatic-based approaches. A plethora of activities outside of “traditionally artistic” categories can also be utilized in creative healing, such as gardening and cooking. Almost any activity can be transformed into a creative and therapeutic endeavor if there is active participation and focused intentionality centered on creating and externalizing.

According to Cathy Malchiodi PhD, the main functions of expressive arts healing are self-regulation, co-regulation, exploration, and restoration. Self-regulation describes how one copes with stressors by soothing the body in addition to soothing the mind. Implementing the expressive arts as a healing modality can provide an opportunity to learn emotional regulation and containment, allowing for trauma-focused processing. Co-regulation, on the other hand, stems from the therapeutic alliance creating a sense of support, attunement, and safety for those involved. This requires witnessing the act of creation by another without judgment and mutual engagement with the creative process. Exploration occurs through integrative, experiential, and sensory-based experiences that foster play and curiosity. Lastly, restoration promotes holistic recovery and self-efficacy. In order to heal trauma, which is often stored in the body, addressing the senses through somatic practices is vital for effective and ethical treatment.

Expressive Arts Benefits

While the expressive arts can be utilized effectively in a variety of environments, the benefits of these uses are also extensive and wide-ranging. The expressive arts offer a trauma-informed approach to healing that connects the brain’s processes to one’s personal narratives, and they can also facilitate community building and self-empowerment. Research shows that participating in artistic activities is significantly more effective than engaging in non-artistic activities in terms of stress reduction. In fact, artistic pursuits offer similar benefits to meditation by promoting a flow state, a sense of calm in the body, and relaxation. These advantages are illustrated even when one is not in an active role of creating art but rather witnessing it such as when one views a painting in a museum or listens to their favorite song.

Simply engaging with art in any capacity increases dopamine production and release in the brain, contributing to a sense of joy, pleasure, and mindfulness. These benefits can also aid in imagining new possibilities for the future or changing a narrative that no longer serves the individual.

This awakening of imagination and creativity can encourage a sense of play and wonder in engaging with the surrounding world for both children and adults. Engaging with the expressive arts allows for not only increased personal reflection and self-discovery but also an ability to learn about others and develop stronger empathy, communication tools, and other prosocial strengths and skills. In addition, artistic skill and experience level are not at all relevant or correlated to achieving these desired outcomes of increased introspection, mind-body connection, clarity, and overall well-being. It is clear that the expressive arts are imperative to growth and fulfillment not only on an individual level but also on a societal level as well.

Expressive Arts Therapy

Expressive Arts Therapy is an integrative, multi-modal approach that can be used on its own or alongside other evidence-based therapeutic approaches. In comparison to traditional talk therapy modalities, Expressive Arts Therapy is inherently trauma-focused, person-centered, accessible, flexible, and able to be tailored to the unique needs of each individual who seeks this form of healing. Often, many individuals and communities – especially marginalized – have already found a sense of grounding and safety within creative healing. Mental health therapists trained in facilitating Expressive Arts Therapy can expand their skill set as clinicians and broaden the depths of their therapeutic capacity, reaching communities who have often been historically underserved or felt unwelcome in clinical mental health counseling spaces.

In addition, Expressive Arts Therapy has been shown to treat a myriad of mental health experiences and other related challenges such as attention-deficit hyperactivity, eating disorders, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, depression, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, developmental disabilities, chronic medical conditions, social issues or isolation, and more. As the focus is on the process of creation rather than on the technique or final product, engaging in Expressive Arts Therapy can also be a dynamic tool when working with the inner critic, building self-esteem, and finding worth beyond tasks solely rooted in capitalist ideals and values. Whether an individual or group is engaging in mask-making, journaling, drumming, dancing, or finger painting, the possibilities for sustainable, cathartic healing and recovery are endless.

Northwest Creative and Expressive Arts Institute offers a training program for mental health clinicians and graduate students to learn how to constructively employ these tools for their clients and their own personal growth and healing. Through experiential, hands-on learning, clinicians can feel what it is like to witness and be witnessed through mutual creation. Cultivating a safe space is the foundation of Expressive Arts Therapy facilitation as it allows people to be vulnerable enough to access their mind, body, heart, and spirit in whatever form or combination of modalities feels natural and true to the story each individual holds within them.

All stories deserve to be told, shaped, healed and witnessed compassionately. Expressive Arts Therapy is a valuable vehicle for storytelling, reframing one’s narrative, and losing oneself in the creative process while simultaneously expanding the pathway toward self-exploration and values-based living.