What is Expressive Arts Therapy?

By Delfina Piretti, LMFT, REAT, Expressive Arts Therapist in San Francisco, CA

Expressive arts therapy’s lineage goes as far back as the cave paintings. To express ourselves as human beings is quite natural. The expressive arts is a call to reclaim our birthright as makers, creators, and artists. Many cultures (such as Indonesian) do not even have a name for what we, in the West, call “art”.

Expressive arts therapy’s central intention is the use of the arts to ignite the creative process in people to facilitate growth and healing. The utilization of all the mediums (painting , drawing, dance, movement, poetry, prose, story-telling, and ritual) distinguishes it from other creative arts therapies whose focus is singular such as art therapy, music therapy or drama therapy. The expressive arts therapist has training and experience in what is called a multimodal arts approach which weaves together different modalities as appropriate for the client’s particular needs and the particular issues being addressed.. You can paint and picture and then move to the painting or write an esthetic response. Each art form is a gateway to the deepest aspects of the self, reawakening a language of image and metaphor and expressing what often cannot easily be put into words.

Some say the opposite of depression is expression. When we are denied a voice we become depressed.

Expressive arts therapy harnesses and awakens the energy of creative intelligence, which opens the doors to possibilities and new perspectives.

Everyone has an inner artist for whom expression is natural and necessary. This “inner creator” takes infinite forms: gardening, building sand castles, sewing, cooking, etc. Expression is important to maintain the flow of life force energy. It’s an essential element in our overall health and healing. It is akin to the natural play of a child; play is necessary for healthy growth and development. The truth is we never stop growing.

Many are aware of art’s psychological and physiological effects and there’s now compelling scientific data to back this up. For example, researchers have found that a lunchtime outing to an art gallery can lower stress and that creating art (e.g., drawing or coloring) can lift one’s mood.

A recent study in Germany shows how painting has a positive neurological impact on the brain. Researchers discovered that those who participated in a drawing or painting class showed a significant improvement in psychological resilience, along with enhanced activity in a region of the brain associated with introspection, self-monitoring, and memory.

The benefits of using non-verbal modalities for health and healing are many. Accessing one’s creativity can enhance a person’s repertoire of possibilities and perspectives. It can cause a shift internally that expands the view of what is possible, as well as provide direction and clarity. It also offers great capacity to hold intense emotions that could otherwise be destructive.

Music is like this, finding a song that speaks to your feelings offers great relief. It assists in the process of feeling and moving through difficult emotions.

So what’s it like to actually participate in expressive arts therapy?

The role of the expressive arts therapist is to witness and guide the process. The therapeutic relationship has great benefits in that it offers corrective experiences that heal the wounds of the past that live in the present.

One of my most frequently used interventions with a new client is one that uses the visual arts and poetry. I invite them to draw the “problem” that brings them to therapy. I explain that it’s not about making “art” and differentiate expression from art making. I invite them to leave their inner critic outside the door. I often add that if they are concerned with making something that looks good to intentionally make an “ugly” picture. This allows you to go beyond the tyranny of good and bad. These paintings are often the most honest. The materials I recommend are inexpensive watercolor paper and watercolor crayons.

I encourage the client to notice the physical sensations that go with applying color and texture and engaging with the materials in the present moment. After they finish, I put the image up for us both to see. I ask the client to look at their drawing and respond by finishing the sentences: I see________, I feel_______, I imagine_________. I sometimes contribute, with their permission. I explain that I will be the scribe and record what they say. I write down what they say word for word with minor changes that results in an “I” poem.

I suggest that they stay with this part long enough to really look at the picture. They may even turn it upside down. As a client, you want to look without preconceptions.  If they are having difficulty, I may ask for their permission to join the process.

For example, the client may say:

“I see red swirls, I feel tension in my jaw, I imagine a ball of yarn unwinding.”

This translates into : I am red swirls. I am tension in my jaw. I am a ball of yarn unwinding. The poem typically is at least 12 sentences (i.e., it’s good to stay with the experience long enough to go deep enough for it to work). The last part of this exercise is to read the “I” poem out loud to the client.

Hearing their words repeated back in the first person helps the client to feel seen, moved, and even surprised. Something new emerges in this process. If the mood has been heavy and hopeless there typically is some glimmer of light. Some of the benefits are: mirroring, acceptance, emotional regulation and reframing a negative experience, and the esteem that comes from making something.

Delfina Piretti, LMFT, Expressive Arts Therapist in San FranciscoAbout this Contributor: Delfina Piretti MA LMFT, REAT is a seasoned body mind healing practitioner who is an all time believer in the power of the arts. In her private practice she blends somatically oriented psychology with the expressive arts, dream analysis, hypnotherapy, energy work, Buddhist psychology and mindfulness practices.

She also incorporates EMDR, TFT, somatic experiencing, sand play and generative hypnotherapy. She has been in private practice for the past 20 years, facilitates EXA workshops and does creativity and wellness coaching. Delfina is adjundt faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies, S.F. where she has taught expressive arts therapy and group supervision for the past 12 years.

For more information about her work, please visit: delfinapiretti.com.