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Expressive Therapy

There are many reasons why some people don’t want to enter an exclusive inpatient or outpatient treatment program for their substance abuse or other addictive behaviors. For some, they feel as though there is nothing that can be done to help them, so why should they even try? For others, the stumbling block may come in the form of self-denial; the lack of understanding that addiction is a treatable disease and that anyone can be adversely affected by it. Still others may be fearful of, or even have a simple aversion, to talk therapy. The idea of sitting, or stereotypically lying, on a sofa, talking endlessly about this or that event in one’s past is enough to bore some people to tears. This type of attitude can be detrimental to the process of recovery, which is why expressive therapy is such an incredible tool for the treatment of addiction.

Expressive therapy uses many different forms of art expression to help people figure out what is going on within them. Art, music, dance and theater are just a few of the accessible forms of art expression that the modern therapist can use to get to the crux of the issues at hand. This is not a new practice, although it has only been the past century or so that the psychological community has embraced it as an actual treatment. According to the book Expressive Therapies by Cathy A. Malchiodi as excerpted by Psychology Today, expressive therapy has been around the centuries and used by such historical cultures as the ancient Greeks. More recently, those training in the psychotherapy sciences have the opportunity to earn bona-fide degrees in expressive therapy as a legitimate weapon in the arsenal against mental disorders and addiction treatment.

*Forms of Expressive Therapy

Expressive therapy refers to the use of self-expression to describe inner reflection and self-investigation of how you feel when conversation isn’t enough. The various forms include:

  • Dance and movement
  • Poetry and creative Writing
  • Painting and drawing
  • Drama and theater
  • Music and drumming
  • Playing and role-playing
  • Sand-play

The Mind and Body Connection

One of the reasons why expressive therapies are so helpful is that these particular techniques link the mind and the body in a very specific way – the way they were intended. Your body and your mind are designed to work together, and they are not independent of one another by any means.

According to the University of Minnesota, the “mind” isn’t exactly the brain. The brain is the organ in your body which controls the physical aspects of how you feel on a physical level. It tells our lungs to breathe. It creates the electrical impulses in our synapses that allow our muscles to move and our nerve endings to experience pain or comfort. The mind, on the other hand, is the part of our brain that controls how we feel – our emotions. Drugs and alcohol affect the brain in detrimental ways, of course, but it is the pleasurable effect on the mind, and how the mind interprets the physical changes, that often lead people to continue using drugs and alcohol when continued use is obviously not a good idea.

“It’s all in your head.” Perhaps you’ve complained about physical aches and pains, and someone has told you this. Worse, they may tell you to, “Cheer up,” with the purest of intentions, thinking that your physical discomfort is merely psychosomatic. In a manner of speaking, they are correct. The way we feel about ourselves, our emotions, do play a significant role in how our bodies feel physically. The physical manifestation of our emotions is not purely psychosomatic, however. The pain is real. The illness is real. The truth is that the mind-body connection is so strong that modern research has proven our emotions, including stress and major depression, have a great deal to do with our overall physical health. One study found that women being treated for cancer with mind-body techniques in addition to their medicinal regimens lived longer and had better quality of life than women who received only physical treatments. Using expressive therapies to establish this mind-body connection is a valuable tool for the treatment of addiction.

Who Can Benefit?

The short answer is that everyone can benefit from expressive therapy.

Do you find it difficult to sit in a quiet room and describe how you’re feeling to a therapist? Perhaps, you’re so leery of the process that you’ve never tried, and this lack of comfort has stood as a barrier to seeking treatment. You may be a perfect candidate for expressive therapy techniques. By using art therapy, for instance, you can learn to express yourself using painting, drawing or sketching. Rather than talking endlessly about trauma in your past or present life, you can use images and color to exorcise some of the demons that are only squashed through continued addictive behaviors.

Dance and movement is another form of expressive therapy that can reduce stress. The increase in physical activity also helps to alleviate some symptoms associated with the recovery process. For instance, many individuals in recovery from opiates experience pain and discomfort because of physical changes in the way the opiate receptors in the brain behave after drug use. Exercise has been shown to have more benefit for those suffering from depression than pharmaceutical antidepressants, in fact, with longer lasting effects. These facts, partnered with the mind-body connection of expressing your emotions through physical movement, can help you release some of the trauma you’ve experienced over the course of your lifetime.

Sometimes, it’s easier to write what we need to say instead of speaking the words aloud. In a creative writing setting, you can use character development and fictional settings to get your feelings out. Some individuals find it incredibly cathartic to release the feelings they’ve been masking with drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviors. When writing creatively, you can choose which medium you’d like to use. For instance, you may have a penchant for poetry, or you may discover your inner playwright. Perhaps, there is a novel lurking somewhere in the deepest parts of your mind. You don’t have to delve quite so far, however. Simple essays or the keeping of a journal are other options for this type of expressive therapy.

Music expressive therapy can come in many forms, as well. Some people learn to play an instrument, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. Basic drumming is a skill that can be picked up in just a few moments and has been shown to positively affect those who participate. We’re not talking about a standard, “rock band” drum set. The smaller, lap-sized drums that are generally played in groups gathered in a circle can offer a tremendous release of energy for everyone involved. The improvisation that comes from collective drumming is nonverbal and private for each participate, which allows the drummer to express himself in a safe environment, without fear of judgment. According to a study performed by Michael Winkelman, PhD at Arizona State University, Tempe’s Department of Anthropology, drumming creates a, “[connection] with [one]self and others.” He states that using drum circles as a complementary therapy when more traditional counseling efforts have failed has definitive applications.

There exists no rule that you must choose just one expressive therapy option. You can mix and match these treatments as you like, perhaps combining creative writing with drama by writing a short play and working with others in treatment to create a performance piece. You can drum or learn to play the guitar while delving into your own psyche through paint and color. The possibilities are limited only by your own imagination.

*Standards for Expressive Therapists

Most art therapists are trained at a graduate level and have some experience in the art form they use in their practice. Some therapists will insist that a practitioner should have a focus on one type of expression while others feel that it is more important to focus on the power of human imagination in a variety of forms. Either way, there are several professional organizations which set the standards for practice in expressive therapy.

Tips to Remember for Effective Therapy

The expression, “There is no wrong answer,” is particularly important when applied to expressive therapy. Expressive therapy is not a diagnostic tool, for instance. Nobody is going to look at the painting you’ve created and decide what is “wrong” based upon your use of black instead of yellow. Drawing a picture of a storm cloud instead of a butterfly doesn’t mean that you’re suffering from some kind of strange psychosis. Rather, expressive therapy is a way for you to get in touch with your feelings and your deepest core of creativity to help you figure out a pathway that is free of addiction. The trained professionals who help to direct you are there for support and to assist you in your process of self-discovery. To get the most out of your expressive therapy program, here are a few tips.

  • Be honest with yourself. The whole point of using art, in any of its many forms, to express yourself is the fact that you are in complete control of what you are saying, either through the written or spoken word, movement or the application of paint to a canvas. You have the opportunity to honestly convey how you feel in a nonthreatening environment. You may find it necessary to show your work to someone else. Take advantage of that opportunity by creating a valid and pure reflection of who you are. Release the pent-up feelings that are the result of trauma or disappointment you’ve experienced throughout your life. By being completely honest and open with yourself, you may find it easier to be open and honest with others, which can lead to a more successful recovery.
  • Let yourself go. Inhibitions are a normal part of our existence. They keep us safe and they prevent us from making improper choices much of the time. Part of the reason some people like the effects of drugs and alcohol is because these substances significantly reduce or even eliminate our inhibitions. Learning how to express yourself without the use of drugs and alcohol can be intimidating, but it is well worth the effort. This added benefit of expressive therapies can teach us how to release our emotions, have fun and overcome some of the reasons why we chose to use and abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place. Allow yourself to experience and feel emotions in a safe environment and then learn to apply the same techniques in your everyday life.
  • Don’t over-think it. One obstacle that some individuals have noticed when it comes to art is the over-application of rules, particularly for those who have experience in certain art forms. An art graduate, for instance, might have a solid foundation of lighting and shading when it comes to painting or sketching. A dancer might have a strict amount of training in form and movement. A professional musician may have spent years developing his or her timing through formal education. In expressive therapy, none of this is important. What matters is putting your feelings out there so they are not destroying you on the inside. You can create whatever you like, using your imagination; the “rules” for art, as defined by anyone other than yourself, no longer matter.

Finding Your Way to Peace Through Expression

No one therapy or treatment program is going to work for everyone. Your addiction is a very personal thing, and your treatment should be just as unique. Using expressive therapy is just one way to overcome the powerful disease of addiction, regardless of what kind of addiction you may suffer from.

If you’d like more information on expressive therapy programs that are designed to treat addiction, contact us today at our toll-free number. We are here 24/7 to answer your questions and provide you with the assistance you need.

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