Art, music, and dance are methods of creative expression, but they can also 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. This therapy is especially effective 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, healing, and empowerment.

How It Works

Types of expressive therapy include 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 their body. A patient uses the mode of expression for personal exploration and to facilitate communication.

The therapist’s focus is not to critique the expressive artwork. The therapist works with the patient to interpret the meaning of the art and the feelings that surround it. Expressive therapy can be used with psychotherapy. In the combination, the patient may create an image that represents their problem or feelings, and then the patient and therapist discuss the art and emotions surrounding it. For some, the process of creating the art is therapeutic in itself.

Types of Expressive Therapy

Types of expressive therapy include:

• Art therapy involves 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 involves writing to verbalize and to 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 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. This may help patients express their emotions, achieve catharsis, and develop new and more effective coping skills.

Other Disorders Treated with Expressive Therapy

In addition to depression, patients experiencing the following disorders or problems also seek treatment with expressive therapy:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • low self-esteem
  • conflict resolution
  • interpersonal relationship or family problems
  • learning disabilities
  • bereavement
  • eating disorders
  • dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • terminal or chronic diseases, such as cancer and chronic pain
  • 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.”