What is expressive therapy?

Art, music, and dance are forms of creative expression that can help you process and cope with emotional issues, including depression. Expressive therapy goes beyond traditional talk therapy. It focuses on creative outlets as a means of expression. This therapy can be especially helpful for people who find it difficult to talk about their thoughts and emotions.

According to the California Institute of Integral Studies, psychologists use expressive arts therapy in many settings to help people explore difficult issues in their lives. These issues may be:

  • emotional
  • social
  • spiritual
  • cultural

“It’s often used with kids,” explains Jaine L. Darwin. Darwin is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “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 based on the belief that all people have the ability to express themselves creatively. The therapy can promote:

  • self-awareness
  • emotional well-being
  • healing
  • self-esteem

Expressive therapy can include various forms of artistic expression. This can include:

  • art
  • music
  • dance
  • drama
  • writing and storytelling

In expressive therapy, the therapist encourages you to use these arts to communicate about emotions and life events. These are often subjects that you may find difficult to put into words. For example, a child might draw a scene that represents a traumatic event. They may dance to express emotion by moving their body. The art becomes the mode of expression for personal exploration and communication.

The therapist’s focus isn’t to critique the expressive artwork. The therapist works with you to interpret the meaning of your art and the feelings that surround it. Psychologists often combine expressive therapy with other forms of psychotherapy. For example, you may create an image that represents your problem or feelings. Then you and your therapist will discuss the art and emotions surrounding it. For some, the process of creating the art is therapeutic in itself.

Types of expressive therapy include:

Art therapy

People draw or paint images that represent their thoughts and emotions. Art therapy is common in hospitals, particularly for children.

Music therapy

This type of therapy includes:

  • singing
  • songwriting
  • playing musical instruments
  • listening to music

All are intended to promote healing and positive emotions.

Writing or poetry therapy

People write to communicate and work through difficult emotions. Research shows that writing promotes health and well-being. It also boosts immune function. The University of California at San Francisco reported that a storytelling project helped women with HIV become less isolated. It also led to improvements with the safety and quality of their living situations. The school participated in the project in partnership with a performance program called The Medea Project.

Dance therapy

People can express and process how they feel through movement. The therapy helps people improve both their mental and physical health.

Drama therapy

This type of therapy includes role-playing, improvisational techniques, or puppetry. This may help people:

  • express emotions
  • release tension and emotion
  • develop new and more effective coping skills

People experiencing the following disorders or issues may also benefit from 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 conditions, such as cancer or chronic pain
  • alcohol or drug addiction
  • trauma, including trauma from sexual, physical, or emotional abuse

Expressive therapy uses forms of creative expression such as art, music, and dance to help people explore and transform difficult emotional and medical conditions. Psychologists use this type of therapy in a variety of settings. It’s often used in combination with more traditional psychotherapy techniques. Ask your doctor for a referral to a practitioner if you feel expressive therapy might benefit you.