Art, music and dance are tools that are often used for creative expression, but they can also be used to help a person process and cope with emotional problems, including depression. Expressive therapy goes beyond traditional talk therapy by using creative outlets as a means of expression, especially for those who have difficulty communicating and conveying thoughts and emotions.
“Expressive therapy has to do with using various creative modalities such as music and art,” explains Jaine L. Darwin, PsyD, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s often used with kids. They can’t fully talk about what’s going on, not on a nuanced level. Expressive therapy often serves people who don’t know how to use ‘feeling’ words.”
The therapy is founded on the belief that all people have the capacity to express themselves creativity. The therapy promotes self-awareness, emotional wellbeing and healing, as well as empowerment.
How It Works
There are several different types of expressive therapy, including art, music, dance and drama therapy. Each of these areas can be used to articulate emotions and life events that are difficult to verbalize. For example, a patient might draw a scene that represents a traumatic event or dance to express emotion by moving her body. The modality is used for personal exploration and to facilitate communication, allowing the patient to express his or her thoughts and emotions through art. The therapist’s focus is not to critique the expressive artwork. Rather, the therapist works with the patient to interpret the meaning of the art and the feelings that surround it. Expressive therapy can be used as an adjunct to psychotherapy, such as having the patient create an image that represents his or her problem or feelings, and then the patient and therapist discuss the art and emotions surrounding it. For some, the process of creating the art, whether it’s dancing, writing a poem or listening to music, is considered to be therapeutic in and of itself.
Types of Expressive Therapy
There are several different types of expressive therapy:
• Art therapy can involve drawing or painting images that represent the patient’s thoughts and emotions. Art therapy continues to be a mainstay in hospitals, particularly for pediatric patients.
• Music therapy includes singing, songwriting, playing musical instruments and listening to music to promote healing and positive emotions. Research shows a link between music therapy and a decrease in depression.
• Writing or poetry therapy has patients put pen to paper to verbalize and work through difficult emotions. Research shows that writing promotes health and wellbeing and appears to boost immune function.
• Dance therapy is used to help people, including those coping with mental and physical illnesses such as depression and cancer, express and process how they feel through movement. The therapy helps patients improve both their mental and physical health.
• Drama therapy includes role playing, improvisational techniques or puppetry to help patients express their emotions, achieve catharsis and develop new and more effective coping skills.
Other Disorders It Treats
In addition to depression, patients experiencing the following disorders or problems also seek treatment with expressive therapy:
• low self-esteem
• conflict resolution
• interpersonal relationship or family problems
• learning disabilities
• eating disorders
• dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
• terminal or chronic diseases, such as cancer and chronic pain, respectively
• alcohol or drug addiction
• trauma including sexual, physical or emotional abuse
What the Expert Says
“Expressive therapy is a broad category of a variety of therapies - the primary strategy is to help the person get in touch with their emotional state and subjective experiences and express them,” explains Jeffrey L. Binder, PhD, a professor of psychology at Argosy University in Atlanta. “The therapy helps them feel more control of their emotions.”