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Expressive Therapy

Addiction treatment is different for everyone. How people respond to treatment varies from person to person, as every human being possesses their own unique personalities and traits. 

Every year, millions of Americans suffer from addiction. Addiction can be a substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder, and can look different among different people. These millions of helplessly addicted individuals search for an answer to their plight year after year, and the addiction treatment industry has responded. Perhaps you are one of the people for whom traditional treatment methods were not effective. Do not be discouraged! Perhaps expressive therapy may in fact be what’s right for you!

What is Expressive Therapy?

So, does traditional therapy not seem to be giving you the desired results you’re looking for? While millions of people undertake more classic forms of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or even dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), not everyone’s brain works in the same way. In order to respond to this need of different therapeutic approaches for different people, the therapeutic community had to respond with different approaches. This is how expressive therapy got its start.

Expressive therapy is defined as the use of the creative arts as a form of therapy. Unlike its more traditional counterparts, expressive therapy aims to have clients utilize the ability to create and be creative as a means of treatment. Expressive therapy hones in on the process of creating as opposed to the actual completed project. Expressive therapy functions on the idea that individuals may heal their various psychological ailments, including addiction, through the process of creation and utilizing their imaginations through the medium of the different forms of creative expressions.

How Does Expressive Therapy Work?

Person drawing as a part of their art therapy

Originally, the history of expressive therapy began in the late 1800s. At this period of time, the psychology community and the community at large were undergoing the movement to begin to treat those with mental health issues far more humanely, focusing more solely on the solution rather than merely locking them away. The idea of using the arts as treatment was in its budding stages, and throughout the following century, became more refined.

As expressive therapy began to make headway with clients who were previously unresponsive to “talk therapy” and other classic forms of therapy, it began to gain more popularity. But how exactly does expressive therapy work?

It all boils down to the natural human desire to create. Inside each human being exists this intrinsic need to use their imagination and create something. The creation of man is known as “art.” Since art can be defined in many ways, expressive therapy can take on many different faces. However, the basic premise stays the same.

Expressive therapy operates on the idea that in order to create something, a human being must tap into an deeply emotional place inside of themselves. While traversing this emotional process of creation, an individual may encounter an experience of self-discovery and a more complete understanding of themselves. The creative outlet becomes the pathway of expressing one’s innermost feelings, which, in turn, leads to a better level of emotional health. And the reason to use declines.

Expressive Therapy Techniques: Art Therapy, Music Therapy, and More

Since expressive therapy exists as a blanket term for a large subsection of therapeutic methods, what are some of the different expressive therapy techniques? As this is such a large field with endless possibilities, below are a list of a few different expressive therapy techniques to learn about and potentially try out. 

As stated earlier, every single person is different. How they respond to therapy varies greatly from individual to individual. Much like anything else, it relies heavily on trial and error in order to find the one that most perfectly fits to your individual life. 

Art Therapy

First up on our list is art therapy. It is a very popular expressive therapy technique and has been implemented by mental health care providers around the world. It involves the use of various creative approaches like drawing, coloring, painting, sculpting, or other means of creation to assist individuals in expressing themselves in an artistic fashion.

Throughout the process of creation, the client and therapist closely examine the psychological and emotional tones expressed through the medium of the art. The art therapist can then analyze these undertones as messages, symbols, or metaphors hidden within the art. Upon uncovering these hidden emotional messages, the therapist and the client can better comprehend the thoughts and feelings behind the messages and move forward in the therapy process in order to resolve the deeply rooted issues. 

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Music Therapy

Another popular expressive therapy technique is music therapy. Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship. Music therapy can assist clients in improving a client’s mental health in a variety of different ways. Music therapy functions in two different ways: active and receptive.

In the first form, active music therapy the music therapist will work together with the client in actively creating music. This can be done through different mediums such as instruments, vocals, and various objects. Active music therapy gives the client a stage upon which to be creative and expressive through the creation of their music. The idea resonates similarly with art therapy, where through the act of creating the art, hidden emotional messages may be uncovered and explored.

In the second facet of music therapy, receptive music therapy, the process looks a little bit different. Receptive music therapy takes place in a more relaxed setting in which the therapist is more in control than the client. The music therapist will play or make the music in lieu of the patient. Instead of joining in on the creation of the music, the client instead is free to respond to the music as they see fit. This could include drawing, listening, or meditating to the music. The response of the client to the music uncovers the same information hidden away within the client as the active approach does. It’s really more the preferred method of the music therapist.

Writing Therapy/Journaling

The last form of expressive therapy on our list is writing therapy, or also known as journaling. Journaling has been a means of self expression since man first learned how to put pen to paper, but more recently, the true therapeutic value of this practice has been uncovered and implemented into modern day psychology.

Writing therapy is the act of writing and processing the written words. A therapist will set the stage for the client to begin writing, in whatever style the therapist may deem fitting, and the client follows the directions of that writing activity. Throughout the creative writing process, a client may be able to access previously buried information about themselves and finally be able to express it and analyze it in a more therapeutic manner. Therapists may also review what the author has penned and draw their own conclusions and interpretations and move forward in therapy from there.

Journal therapy is a facet of the broader term of writing therapy that hones in on the author’s internal thoughts, experiences, and feelings. The practice utilizes reflective writing in the hopes that the author may in fact experience an emotional or mental clarity that had previously been incapable of attaining. By doing so, the individual may develop a deeper understanding of themselves.


Malchiodi, Cathy A. (2005). Expressive Therapies, History, Theory, and Practice. Retrieved March 2018 from

Psychology Today. (2018). Expressive Arts Therapy. Retrieved March 2018 from

Psychology Today. (2018). Art Therapy. Retrieved March 2018 from

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