What is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Some years back, I went through a period of depression. I didn’t want to get out of bed and was having a hard time focusing at work. I have a background in art, but hadn’t put the brush to canvas in years. Somehow, during this darkness, I found the motivation to take my art materials out of storage.

I never wanted to leave my house, so it was perfect; I would sit alone at home, dip the brush into some bright, emotionally-charged color for me, and drag it across the canvas in big strokes.

It was so soothing, and the results on the canvas excited me, which was a huge improvement from feeling flat for months.

I felt the colors feeding me. My roommates and friends were encouraging, and while I was never really happy with the final product, the experience in making it was truly the gift. So, I would paint over and over the images. I was still sad and grieving, but I felt alive.

This process and time are initially what sparked my interest in studying Expressive Arts Therapy (EXA) at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Talk therapy is great and can produce amazing results on its own, but sometimes experiences are difficult to access or describe.

Paintbrushes can be used in Expressive Arts Therapy

What is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Contrary to traditional art therapy, which is more psychoanalytical, Expressive Arts Therapy is about what is experienced during the process of producing the art. Expressive Arts Therapy draws together the imaginative and the psychological to promote insight and innovation in approaching life’s challenges. As part of my program at CIIS, I had to see an EXA therapist on my own, and got further in my healing than I could have otherwise.

One particular tool that I love from an EXA therapist’s box is the sandtray. It resembles a toy sculpture; the large collection of figures allowed me to find the perfect correlation to a person or problem I was having and to arrange them in the way I needed to. It was eye-opening to see the relationships between the figures, and the significance of the figures chosen. It was also such a relief to get it out of my head. As Fritz Perlz, a gestalt therapist, said, “The healthiest form of projection is art.”

Making art requires us to let go of the concrete knowns and to venture into what we call liminal space, and play.

We know that the most intelligent creatures on earth play as part of their development. Play helps us learn the skills we need to survive. With that, the arts provide us the space for play and contemplation, exploration of the lesser-known parts of experience and psychological processing.

Expressive Arts Therapy can include writing, moving, acting, dancing, painting, sculpting, playing musical instruments and more. It’s about expressing the inexpressible and then taking a look at what just happened and how it felt or feels. Therapy can be most helpful when the problems we are having in our outside lives present themselves in the room at the time of therapy. EXA provides another container for those issues to come up.

If you’re on your own and looking for some ways to incorporate the arts into your better health and wellness routine, try picking up some meditative coloring sheets for a way to focus and center when stressed. Make a collage about a goal or issue you’re having for more awareness and clarity. For a whole slew of ideas, see this list here.

Horse art can be a form of Expressive Arts Therapy in San Francisco. CA

About the Author

Jennifer Machado is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) in San Francisco, who specializes in Expressive Arts Therapy. In her words, “Finding the right fit and connection with a therapist is crucial, but once you do, the insights gained and thoughtful change initiated from the process are invaluable.”

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