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Art Therapy Infomation

Evidence-based practices (EBPs) have been at the center of addiction treatment. But recently, addiction treatment centers have begun to include more holistic approaches to addiction. One of them is art therapy.

Art therapy is becoming an increasingly popular method used by treatment centers to help patients battling with alcohol and drug abuse.

Let’s focus on the benefits of art therapy and explore its processes and effectiveness.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a complementary and alternative medical practice that uses creative techniques. People learn how to artistically express themselves and examine the psychological undertones in their art. It’s a technique that can lead to healing through artistic expression.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the use of complementary and alternative medical (CAM) practices has rapidly increased over time. It’s estimated that 40% of adults use some form of CAM practices.

Art Supports Internal Understanding

A licensed art therapist with an understanding of art techniques guides the art therapy sessions. They are also trained in psychological grounding in human behavior, therapy, and transformative therapies. Patients “decode” the nonverbal messages and symbols found in the art they produce. By decoding their meaning, patients can understand their feelings and behavior and continue with resolving deeper problems.

The process of creating art and understanding its meaning can help people:

Explore their emotions

Cope with stress

Improve their self-esteem

Develop self-awareness

In art therapy, it’s possible to express fears, frustrations, and disappointments, in a supportive environment. The most common techniques include drawing, painting, coloring, sculpting, or collage.

People of all ages can take part in art therapy, including children, teens, and adults. They don’t have to have the technical skills to produce art or any unique talent to take part in art therapy. Every person has their own story to tell, and expressing it through art can be a healing experience for many.

Art Therapy Working Wonders in PTSD Treatment

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be challenging to treat because simply discussing the original traumatic event is such a horrific experience for the trauma victim.  Because direct analytical approaches to therapy can be too overwhelming for some with PTSD, alternative methods are extremely helpful.

Traumatic experiences are stored in the brain in such a visceral way that words are often inadequate to describe them accurately.  Imagery can safely access memories of traumatic experiences, as well as helping trauma victims work on understanding their triggers and changing their reactions to them.

Art therapy, used as a means of exploring the self, can help trauma victims work through what has happened to them in a way that does not trigger panic in the brain because it is abstract.  The practice of art-making can be extremely therapeutic in and of itself, allowing the mind to relax as it focuses in on hand-eye coordination.  Art therapy groups can act as a safe space where PTSD victims find a sense of calm and comfort – a feeling that can be rare for those dealing with trauma.

Art therapy’s success as a supplement to tradition PTSD treatment bodes well for other alternative therapies.  The brain is incredibly complex – why confine treatment to conventional therapy?

Where Does Art Therapy Fit Into Treatment?

Step One: Addressing Physical Dependence

The first step in treating an addiction is addressing the physical addiction. Many substances can create physical dependence within the body. The body gets used to the presence of a drug or alcohol and has a hard time functioning without it. 

Cleansing the body of toxins is an essential first step. It means dealing with many withdrawal symptoms, including nausea, fever, and insomnia.

Step Two: Addressing Psychological Dependence

The second step is addressing the psychological component of the addiction. The emotional component is equally important as the physical aspect. Many people who suffer from an addiction are also diagnosed with other mental disorders and vice versa. This is where complementary treatments such as art therapy comes in.

Background on Art Therapy

Art therapy as a type of treatment has appeared during the mid 20th century.1 Doctors noticed that people battling with mental illness often expressed themselves through artwork. Consequently, this led them to explore the application of art as a treatment strategy.

The Emergence of Art Therapy

British artist Adrian Hill coined the term in 1942. Hill discovered the therapeutic benefits of art while recovering from tuberculosis.

In the US, art therapy pioneers Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer introduced art therapy to the country. It’s been argued that it was Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychotherapy that influenced Naumburg and Kramer to employ art in therapy. 2

Art Therapy in the Modern Era

The American Art Therapy Association was founded in 1969 as a non-profit organization. During the 1990s, researchers turned their attention toward art and recreation therapy. Since then, art therapy has become an accepted approach to substance abuse treatment.

Today, art therapy is offered in a wide variety of settings, including:

Mental health facilities

Addiction recovery centers



Counselors' offices

How Does Art Therapy Work?

Art therapy is an expressive type of healing. It allows a person to safely explore their feelings, particularly those that are hard to face.

Allows Alternative Communication

Drugs can cause severe brain cell damage. This can result in language loss or poor communication skills. Some people who have a history of addiction also have a history of physical, sexual, and mental abuse. As a result, they might find it easier to communicate through art. Instead of words, they’re expressing their feelings by painting them out.

Changing Motivations

One study estimated that nearly 80% of people with substance abuse disorders who are going through treatment are only contemplating changing their behavior.3 This is where art therapy can help to encourage people to express themselves creatively.

It can help those who have suffered from:

Emotional trauma

Physical violence

Domestic abuse

80% of People with Substance Abuse Disorders Going Through Treatment are Only Contemplating Changing Their Behavior

Through art, it’s easier to understand the damage substance abuse has done. This insight can motivate change in behavior for the long-term.


In essence, art therapy is self-expression through artistic creation. It can have therapeutic value for people who are trying to understand themselves on a deeper level. Their path of understanding is assisted by certified art therapists. Art therapists understand the roles that texture, color, and different art media can play in the treatment process. Each color and texture reveals a person’s feelings, thoughts, and psychological disposition.

Art therapy can be used as a standalone treatment. But it’s most often used in combination with other conventional types of treatment.

How Does Art Therapy Help?

Many times, people suffering from addiction can’t express their feelings through words. The heartaches and horrors they’ve experienced can’t be accessed only with talk therapy. Instead, they can try to express themselves through the creation of art. In fact, making art is thought to activate a different part of the brain.

Studies suggest that art therapy can have the following benefits:

Decreasing denial

Providing an outlet for communication

Reducing opposition to alcoholism treatment

Lessening shame

Expresses Challenging Feelings

When patients can’t find the words to explain their feelings, they can do so through images, symbols, and colors. In a way, art therapy is a type of treatment that utilizes painting inner images. Clients express their feelings that have long been stored in their minds and hearts.

Addresses Unique Needs

One report suggests that CAM practices can be useful in addressing women’s unique needs in therapy. Art therapy is especially helpful when working with women who have suffered from sexual abuse. This is quite common in addiction treatment.4

Moreover, art therapy is believed to be a useful technique for engaging adolescents. They can take an inner experience and transform it into art, and as a result, become more open to treatment.

Opens Discussions and Acceptance

Viewing and discussing art has also been found to help in group discussions. It can motivate patients to move from a state of reflection into a state of action.

Academic reports link art therapy with the use of a 12-step model. According to reports, there’s a complementarity between the two approaches. It has been suggested that art therapy can help encourage the first step. It can break down resistance and help with patients accepting the addiction.

Types of Art Therapy

Art therapy involves many activities, including:

In an art therapy session, the person receives a wide range of art supplies, including:

Blank paper



Gel pens




Acrylic paints


Glue sticks


Making Mandalas

One art therapy technique that has been helpful in self-soothing is mandala making. Patients make their own mandalas from scratch or color already-made mandala designs. They will have 30 to 40 minutes to complete their mandalas and then discuss the experience.

Hypothetical Greeting Cards

Another popular art therapy technique is the “Hypothetical Greeting Card.” Each person is asked to create a greeting card to send to a person they care about. The benefit of this exercise is that it helps people evaluate who matters to them.

Art Therapy Misconceptions

Misconception #1: A Person in Art Therapy Must Be Artistic

A common misconception is that the person has to have excellent technical skills. But art therapy is all about the process of making art and expressing your emotions. It’s not about how good you are in producing a work of art.

Misconception #2: Art Therapy is Only for Children and the Elderly

People of all ages can benefit from art therapy, including children, teens, and adults. In fact, art therapy is believed to be a useful technique for engaging adolescents. It encourages them to become more open to treatment.

Misconception #3: Art Therapy is Just Arts and Crafts

Arts and crafts are a hobby. Art therapy is an expressive therapy that aims to improve a person’s mental well-being. Art therapy is guided by a certified therapist that must have 1,000 post-graduate hours of supervised client contact.

Effectiveness of Art Therapy

Many studies suggest that art therapy is effective in the treatment of addiction. However, studies are often small and inconclusive, so there’s a need for more research.

Scientists believe that the creation of art and the feeling of achievement can increase levels of dopamine in the brain.5 Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter that can boost mood, motivation, and attention.

Art therapy is believed to be effective in:

By engaging in art therapy, patients can function more efficiently. The therapy is a healthy and uplifting way to stay focused on recovery and feel some peace of mind.

What Health Conditions Have Found Art Therapy Helpful?

Substance Use Disorders and Addiction

Alcohol and drugs are often abused by people who are trying to cope with trauma and emotional pain. Instead of resolving their emotional problems, their pain gets buried underneath. Through art therapy, patients learn healthier methods of dealing with their pain. They manage to process complicated and negative feelings without abusing any substances.


People with anxiety can gain insight into their mental health through self-expression. They often find it hard to express their emotions through words. Art therapy helps them express deeper feelings.


Art therapy can be helpful in treating PTSD when done with a professional therapist. During art therapy, patients externalize pieces of their traumatic stories. They access their physical experiences and learn that their bodies are now safe from harm.

Eating Disorders

One popular art therapy method for eating disorders is body tracing. The patient draws out what they think their body is. The therapist traces their actual body over the top of their drawing. Often, the patient’s perceived outline of their body is often larger than the tracing. An art therapist will use this visual expression as a tool to talk about the emotions and feelings of the patient. It has been shown that this type of therapy can improve one’s understanding of self. It can also help them create something that they find hard to explain verbally. It can reduce one’s feelings of isolation and distorted thinking patterns. Patients can connect with others who are experiencing the same emotions.


One study in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association in 2016 discovered that only 45 minutes of creative activity could reduce stress. It’s believed that art therapy can ease stress by taking one’s mind off things and helping them tap into a “state of flow.”

Art therapy is about replacing a negative coping technique with a positive one. Patients in aftercare are encouraged to continue to practice art therapy. Being creative during a particular time of the day when they used to drink or use drugs can help them stay sober. Patients are also instructed to set aside time at night to make art to calm down and relax.

Therapist Training and Certifications

The education and training for an art therapist vary from state to state. If a person wants to offer psychotherapy services, they must become either a:

Licensed clinical psychologist

Professional counselor

Social worker

In the US, the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) provides credentialing programs for people who want to become art therapists. The minimum requirements are:

A master's degree in art therapy or in a related field with additional coursework in art therapy

At least 100 hours of completed supervised practicum

At least 600 hours of supervised art therapy clinical internship

The initials “ATR” after a therapist’s name indicate that they are registered with the ATCB. The initials “ATR-BC” suggest that they have also passed an examination to become board-certified by the ATCB.

Art Therapy Key Takeaways

Traditional therapy has been a vital part of addiction and mental health treatment programs. Besides conventional treatment, many treatment centers have been offering more holistic approaches to treatment. Art therapy is one of them.

Many people find it difficult to express their feelings through words. Art therapy helps them understand their emotions better and express them visually. Participating in art therapy can help remove the barriers that prevent people from acknowledging the true sources of their pain. Ultimately, it can help them find their voice and lead to long-term healing of the mind.

Art therapy is a form of complementary and alternative medical practice. It encourages people with addiction and mental health issues to express themselves creatively.

Art therapy is guided by an art therapist. They have a master’s degree in art therapy or a related field.

Art therapy involves many activities, including drawing, painting, sculpting, etc.

Art therapy is believed to improve social skills and increase self-esteem. It can also boost cognitive functinos and promote change. 

If you’re interested in participating in art therapy, find a registered art therapist in your area. Many drug addiction treatment centers provide art therapy sessions that are guided by a certified therapist.