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Art Therapy for Addiction

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    Art Therapy for Addiction

    Art therapy provides a safe and relaxed environment in which to work through complicated feelings and situations, without the often intense aspect of a structured therapy session.

    Art therapy can be useful for people recovering from addiction because it engages the senses but lets the participant go at their own pace.

    This method of treatment uses art and creativity as a form of communication, a way to express uncomfortable and often painful emotions without actively verbalising them.

    More than simply sketching a picture, art therapy can include painting, drawing, pottery, collage, crafts and sculpture and encompasses a range of traditional treatment methods such as mindfulness.

    An art therapy collage

    Unlike many types of alternative medicine, art therapy is backed by science.

    For instance, many people experiencing substance abuse find it easier to express themselves visually rather than verbally, particularly when it comes to difficult emotions and memories. [1]

    This makes it more approachable than talking psychotherapy or behaviour therapy, which are more invasive, or group psychotherapy which involves talking to an audience which can cause embarrassment.

    Art therapy delves into what’s known as the ‘mind body problem‘, where you express an inner state of consciousness with your body to create the art.

    This can appeal to people who previously used drugs or alcohol to try to tap into a deeper or spiritual state.

    Art therapy is more commonly offered by rehabilitation centres and specialised treatment programmes and is often more difficult to access through public health services.

    As a complementary form of therapy, art therapy is most commonly used in combination with other treatments such as:

    1. detoxification
    2. cognitive behavioural therapy
    3. dialectical behaviour therapy

    These methods promote concrete behavioural and mindset changes, while art therapy is primarily focused on expressing and working through emotions.

    What are the different types of art therapy?

    Paintbrushes set up for art therapy as part of an addiction recovery programme

    Paintbrushes set up for art therapy as part of an addiction recovery programme

    There are a number of different forms of art therapy, each designed to work in tandem with the patient’s individual needs.

    Some people have more confidence in their art skills and the ability to express their feelings visually and will therefore need little assistance, while others may require more guidance.

    An experienced art therapist will work with the patient to provide the method of art therapy that will best suit their individual needs.

    Below are the most common types of art therapy:

    1. Gestalt method art therapy

    The individual is encouraged to expand on their thoughts and feelings behind the artwork, discussing the deeper meaning and any memories that surfaced during the process.

    The finished product will usually reflect their current mood, allowing both the therapist and the individual to gain a greater insight into the thoughts and emotions that relate to the addiction.

    2. Active imagination method art therapy

    Similarly to the above method, the patient is encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings through the medium of creativity using the art supplies provided.

    However, they are not limited to communicating their current emotions and can instead create anything they desire.

    The therapist will observe the process and occasionally ask questions, working to find a connection with the artwork and the deeper addiction.

    3. Third-hand method art therapy

    If the individual is unsure where to begin or lacks confidence in their skills, the therapist may take an active approach to the treatment process.

    They will become more involved and assist the individual in creating the artwork, helping them to decipher their feelings and emotions while still allowing them to take control of the creative process.

    4. Incident method art therapy

    The individual is encouraged to create a piece of artwork that represents a specific incident that occurred during their addiction, or an incident that the individual believes actively lead to the addiction.

    How do I decide which type of art therapy I want?

    All art therapy is a creative way for you to feel more positive, so it simply comes down to which one you feel speaks to you, your personality and your way of communicating.

    How can I receive a particular type of art therapy?

    If you go to a private rehab, you’ll have more say in getting a personalised plan that you can tweak and change. Ask your provider before you attend if they offer your chosen type.

    Publicly-funded rehab may not allow you to receive art therapy, and particularly not a specific type.

    How can art therapy help to treat addiction?

    A woman with her hands clasped, eyes shut

    A woman with her hands clasped, eyes shut

    Addiction can often be traced back to specific instances throughout our lives and maybe the result of one or more traumatic experiences. It can be difficult to express these memories and the emotions attached to them, particularly in the presence of a therapist or within a group setting.

    The most effective therapy helps those in addiction to:

    • Fully accept their addiction
    • Explore the circumstances that lead up to the addiction
    • Let go of guilt and shame
    • Get to the root cause of the addiction
    • Heal from the addiction and move forward sober

    What’s the science behind art therapy?

    A brain

    Research has found that using the left and right hemispheres of the brain together is associated with feelings of satisfaction and joy.[4]

    Art therapy provides a non-invasive way to do this, allowing participants to convey these traumatic and often repressed memories and feelings in a safe and relaxed environment.

    Discussing the details of addiction along with the consequences of their past behaviours can trigger feelings of shame and guilt within many people, which can often prevent them from speaking up.

    By channelling these feelings into their artwork they are able to work through their memories of the past without feeling hindered by embarrassment, remorse or feelings of perceived judgement.

    While other forms of addiction treatment may feel more intense and focused on actively verbalising thoughts and emotions, art therapy can provide a welcome break from the more intensive aspects of the programme while still actively treating the addiction.

    What are the benefits of art therapy?

    A woman painting in art therapy for addiction

    A woman painting in art therapy for addiction

    While art and other creative pursuits are beneficial to individuals outside of addiction treatment, this form of expression can be even more helpful to those that are dealing with a substance or behavioural addiction.

    Using visual art as a way to express feelings and memories associated with the addiction provides a unique insight for both the therapist and the patient, and when combined with other traditional therapy treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy this method has been proven to be highly effective. [3]

    Some benefits of art therapy for addiction include:

    • Provides an outlet for difficult emotions such as anger, sadness and fear
    • A relaxing and less intense break from traditional therapy treatments
    • Allows people to express their feelings and emotions visually in a safe environment
    • Can help identify the root cause of the addiction
    • Builds self-esteem, fosters a sense of achievement
    • Provides a feeling of control
    • Encourages team-building and the development of social skills
    • Can be practised at home as a way to deal with the more difficult aspects of addiction recovery
    • Sparks creativity and enthusiasm

    Do I have to be good at art to feel the benefits of art therapy?

    These advantages are not exclusive to individuals who are exceptionally talented at art – those at any skill level can benefit from art therapy, as the healing comes from the expression of pent-up emotions rather than the quality of the final product.

    What can I expect from an art therapy session?


    Two men talking one to one

    Two men talking one to one

    Art therapy sessions are conducted by a professionally trained and experienced art therapist, who will guide you through the process of creating your artwork and assessing the thoughts and emotions that may emerge during the activity.

    The session will begin with an assessment of your needs, discussing any issues that have recently occurred and how you have been feeling.

    If this is your first session, the therapist will explain the process of art therapy and find out more about your medical history and the extent of your addiction.

    Next, you will be provided with a range of art supplies and encouraged to begin the process of expressing yourself visually through the act of art-making.

    Will my therapist talk to me during art therapy?

    Your therapist will observe you while you work, answering any queries you may have and occasionally asking questions – generally, you will be left to make art without any distractions.

    Art therapy is usually practised in groups, but can also be an individual treatment if necessary. In a group session, you will either create individual artworks or collaborate with other patients in order to build something together.

    Graffiti art of a face

    Graffiti art of a face

    Once the artwork has been completed, your therapist will speak to you about what you have created.

    They will work to discover your feelings, emotions and inspiration behind the piece by asking a number of thought-provoking questions.

    Some questions that your therapist may ask include:

    • Did any negative or overwhelming feelings emerge while creating this artwork?
    • Which memories did this process make you think of?
    • How do you feel now compared to how you felt at the beginning of the session?
    • Do you have any new ideas about your current situation?

    While the idea of art therapy may be intimidating to some people, especially those who lack confidence in their creative skills, gaining a general understanding of the process can be helpful when considering this method of treatment.

    Which addictions can art therapy help to treat?

    A group of men laughing

    A group of men laughing

    While art therapy has been used to treat substance abuse addiction since the 1950s [2] it has also been proven to be effective at managing various other forms of addiction.

    Art therapy can be used as a complementary treatment method to treat a number of addictions including:

    This method of treatment is helpful in allowing the individual to express their feelings and emotions in a safe environment and is most effective when combined with other therapy treatments.

    Where can I find an art therapy programme?

    A casual art therapy meeting between a man and woman

    Depending on where you are located, art therapy may be more difficult to access through public health services when compared to more well-known treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

    As art therapy does not treat the physical and psychological aspects of the addiction, it is recommended that this method of treatment is combined with other forms of therapy as described above.

    There are a number of rehabilitation centres across the UK that offer art therapy as part of their addiction treatment programmes.

    If you or someone you care about is dealing with an addiction that you believe may benefit from the use of art therapy as a treatment method, reach out to our team at OK Rehab today.

    We can put you in touch with a local rehabilitation centre or treatment programme to suit your individual needs and help you to discover the benefits of art therapy for addiction treatment.








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