The Benefits of Expressive Arts Therapy

Woman paintingExpressive arts therapy bridges the gap between the conscious and the unconscious mind. It can bring light to areas of therapy that are blocked, inhibited, and stuck, as well as bringing greater focus to those areas of concern. The primary focus is on the process, which allows a person to discover new insight and meaning that might not be achieved with traditional talk therapy. Appropriate for all ages, it can enhance a person’s emotional, spiritual, cognitive, and physical well-being. While no talent in the use of expressive arts is required, several modalities available within expressive arts therapy magnify and deepen the process.

This article will explore five common benefits associated with the use of expressive arts therapy:

  1. Expressive arts therapy encourages the unfolding unconscious. When working with expressive media, people often benefit from the unconscious bubbling to the surface of their awareness. Various media like painting, psychodrama, dance, and sculpting draw forth unearthed material that may not have been seen, felt, observed, or accessed in some way via talk therapy. Through letting go and getting into the creative flow, a portal is created to the process, enabling listening, watching, and observing what might not be explained through words. An example of this would be a person viewing an image and recalling a buried memory shaping their current experience. Another example would be a therapist suggesting to a person that mask-making might deepen the process of a new sub-personality. Whether the choice is a specific media (i.e. paint or sculpture) or the person’s own media (i.e. voice and movement), the process of unfolding to the unconscious material is supported as the person allows the new material to emerge.
  2. It informs communication between a person and their therapist. Another benefit that makes expressive arts therapy inviting is the increased depth of spoken and unspoken communication which results from the expression process and the product itself. The process makes way for additional communication to be made known, which may inform the person and his/her therapist of new insights. An example of this might be when the process of creating an authentic movement piece stirs additional emotion within a person’s experience, resulting in a dialogue about the new feelings that have emerged. The product can also increase or enhance the meaning, infuse additional unseen material, and provide an externalized venue for further discussion. An example of this would be a therapist supporting a person in expressing his or her grief by tapping into his or her talent as a watercolor artist and creating an abstract of his or her grief. The therapist could inquire about the use of color, line, and symbols present in the art.
  3. Expressive arts therapy externalizes and gives form to unfolding material. Giving process a physical form allows a person to feel in control of their process. It can bring depth and life to feelings and images. It shines light on ambivalent feelings by externalizing them and giving them shape and color. One example is having a person draw an image of how they are currently feeling. Doing this might elicit additional information that wasn’t available to the person cognitively. Additionally, one of the benefits is externalizing the process so that a person can witness and be an observer of their own process. This is especially helpful for painful and difficult images and memories by allowing the a person to observe things from a distance. An example of this would be to have the person talk and explain their experience as if they are watching a movie. This allows them to psychically remove him or herself from the painful somatic response that might be risky in the moment.
  4. It awakens and sparks process. Probably the most obvious benefit of expressive arts therapy is the spark created in the imagination. This awakening process allows the person to experience something new. It’s like an a-ha moment, a new discovery. It can lead to new things, bring light to something stuck, open a new doorway to unarticulated feelings, and shed light on the past. It can provide a new language and foster existing language when current circumstances and words cannot describe the unfolding process.
  5. Expressive arts therapy supports integrative learning. It encourages the undiscovered places of knowledge within each person. The opportunity for a person to experience a different way of knowing is enhanced by different sensory experiences. Each experience is enhanced by the other and forms new experiences, thoughts, sensations, and images not normally experienced in the person’s normal one-dimensional experience. As a result, a rich tapestry takes form. An example of this might be asking a person to explore sounds representative of their current experience, which then deepens into the depth of pain that had gone unnoticed.

As you can see, there are many deepening and enriching experiences that expressive arts therapy supports to create a richer, more vibrant therapeutic experience. Each modality is unique, as is each therapist’s use of the modality and the client’s comfort with the material. The beauty is in the process and not the product, which is at the heart of all therapy.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, LMFT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Melissa logue

    January 18th, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    And it gives you a voice even if you feel like you have never had the tools to express yourself before, this is the remedy!

  • kai

    November 16th, 2023 at 6:08 AM


  • Douglas

    January 18th, 2012 at 8:40 PM

    I agree with you!

  • Michelle R

    January 18th, 2012 at 11:27 PM

    Ever since I was 10 or 11,I have this habit of taking a pencil and a paper and drawing about me and the circumstances whenever I’m stressed or feel like there’s no way ahead. Like if I’m having problems at the office,I drew a picture in which my boss was shouting at me in the presence of co-workers-just the other day.

    I dont speak much about this with my friends because I don’t want them to see all the times I’ve been low. But whenever I draw,I don’t think too much,I just let my hand do it. But it’s pretty nice to see it later and see how I felt about the situation.

  • lance

    January 19th, 2012 at 7:12 AM

    there r things words cannot express n arts are a gr8 platform to try n put across ur thoughts tht just cannot be put across through words.there is a lot an artist communicates through his work n if such an activity is encouraged in ppl seekin therapy it will only lead to good results.

  • Pashmina

    January 19th, 2012 at 1:42 PM

    With the arts sometimes the things that you can put down on paper can be so much more indicative of what and how you are feeling than anything that you could ever say aloud in conversation.
    Art allows us to really delve into our inner feelings and to express them in a way that does not feel so threatening or even confrontational.
    This can be painting, sculpting, writing, whatever. The key is that there are so mnay ways to get your feelings out without ever having to say anything at all.
    Art can be a way to start that conversation that you may have feared before, and can open doors to treatment that feels safe and helpful at the same time.


    January 20th, 2012 at 11:52 PM

    I find that I am better able to think and formulate ideas when I make a picture of the things in my head down on a paper. It just works better for me that way. I really want to try this same procedure for any depressive thoughts too.

  • Douglas

    January 21st, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    Thank you all for expressing yourselves! Wonderful insight indeed!

  • ZARA

    January 22nd, 2012 at 1:00 PM

    I found this and immediately got out the paints again. I have had it all put waay for so long, and once I was able to start painting again, the real me started coming through again. Thanks so much for encouraging all of us, even if art is not a way that you would normally express yourself, to use this medium as your voice when you do not know how else to say what you are feeling!

  • Douglas

    January 30th, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    I’m so happy Zara that you found this inspirational! I thought I would try my hand at Expressive Painting, myself even though I’m not painter. It is great to just play, have fun and enjoy the process, too.

  • Dirty Harry

    July 14th, 2015 at 4:00 AM

    Great article.

  • Jessie

    June 27th, 2022 at 11:22 AM

    I love that you talk about the fact that expressive therapy creates deeper communication through both spoken and unspoken words. My partner has trouble expressing themselves through words so traditional therapy is a challenge for them. We’re looking into Creative and expressive therapy to find something that works for them.

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