Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on May 31, 2022.
Art therapy activities are helpful and enjoyable ways for many individuals to find peace from substance use, trauma, mental health conditions and other adversities. Those who have taken the first steps toward beginning substance use recovery may find it hard to talk about their emotions, thoughts and motivations for using substances, which can hinder their efforts to receive adequate help.
However, creativity-based treatments like art therapy provide a safe, calming and healthy approach for people to externalize and process their feelings so that they can build a trusting relationship with their therapist. When trust is established, it's easier for healing to begin.
Learn more about what art therapy for substance use recovery is, how it works and how it can benefit anyone seeking help for substance use disorder (SUD).
Art therapy is the process of using various forms of art to express emotions and achieve healing. Conveying emotions through art can be an effective method of expression for people who face challenges when trying to express themselves through traditional treatment techniques, like talk therapy. Art therapy also doesn't focus solely on getting an individual to change their behaviors — it helps them process their feelings in productive and healthy ways.
Many people experience emotions and thoughts they feel are too difficult to communicate with words. This belief can make it hard for them to connect with and trust their therapist and create a path to healing. Additionally, emotional repression can negatively affect physical health alongside mental and emotional health. People who suppress their emotions also suppress their bodies' immune systems and can suffer numerous adverse physical effects — especially when chronically ill.
Art therapy allows people to end emotional repression, recover their physical and psychological health, regain a sense of control and communicate difficult experiences while lessening their stress responses. A preexisting background in art isn't required of anyone who participates in art therapy for the treatment to work for them.
Recovery art projects can be excellent tools for those recovering from substance use disorder, and art therapy works for several other conditions. One systematic review revealed that this treatment method has successfully helped reduce symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, autism and more. Art therapy may also be an effective tool in helping to diagnose certain mental conditions.
This treatment method's symptom reduction abilities serve particularly well when combined with other forms of treatment, like group therapy, family counseling and other types of sensory stimuli.
The art projects you create become physical proof of your progress through SUD treatment, which can motivate you into continuing with recovery. People may expect to see certain results when overcoming their SUD, and they may not follow through with their treatment plan if they don't get the outcomes they anticipate. However, being able to look at an art project you've completed provides a physical marker of your recovery journey.
Various factors can hinder people with SUD from expressing how they feel in traditional therapy sessions, including comorbidities like speech impairments and mental health conditions. Many people suffering from SUD also have co-occurring mental health disorders, which can make communicating emotions challenging. Research shows that half of all people with SUD will also experience a mental disorder during their lifetimes, such as depression or an anxiety disorder.
Speech impairments may come into play due to substance use potentially causing brain cell damage, which can affect brain communication pathways. Processes like cellular aging and inflammation caused by drug addiction are associated with learning and memory deficits and reduction in brain volume. In turn, clients may struggle to convey ideas and feelings when using talk therapy modalities because of impairments in their memory and communication abilities.
Therapists and clients may also encounter certain verbal barriers that affect communication efforts. Clients can come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, meaning not everyone will understand all the terms used in traditional therapy modalities. Similarly, clients may use terms that therapists aren't familiar with when describing their mental and emotional states. Using visual media and simple language can get clients and therapists on the same page and empower individuals in their expression.
Art therapy provides an effective approach to these specific addiction-related communication challenges by lessening the shame associated with substance use, decreasing denial of substance use, relieving stress and anxiety associated with talk therapy and motivating clients to stay on the path to recovery.
Art therapy projects for addiction can range widely in their creativity and what they allow clients to achieve. Because of this, professionals may use various therapeutic methods when engaging in art therapy with their clients:
What might an art therapy session look like for you? There isn't a specified list of art projects you'll have to complete — every individual's treatment plan will vary depending on the client's preferences and the therapist's approach. Common practices include painting, drawing, making music, writing and creating sculptures. Anything that can be considered art can likely be done in an art therapy session, which is what makes this treatment option so flexible and enjoyable.
Some types of art projects you may do while in art therapy include the following:
Art can offer significant healing power for those who utilize it. It has proven effective in various mental health and medical contexts, including nursing environments for older adults and treatment plans for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Your therapist guides you in uncovering memories and emotions that arise while you create your art. You can be more relaxed and receptive to the process knowing your therapist is there to assist you — not tell you how to feel or dictate the art-making process.
Art therapy provides you with plenty of ways to express yourself creatively, so you never have to feel limited to a certain artistic medium. You can create a song or poem to convey how substance use has impacted your life, or develop a dance or skit that helps you safely relive past traumatic experiences and reframe your thinking of these events. Write a letter to a loved one, sculpt a statue representing yourself or your SUD, play an instrument to release strong emotions or create a scrapbook of memories.
Ultimately, art-making has inherent pleasurable qualities due to how it causes the brain's reward center to become more active. In other words, any form of art creation can encourage positive emotions and increase an individual's self-opinion. As a result, it's an extremely beneficial form of therapy for people with SUD.
Any individual trying to overcome SUD or a mental health disorder can take advantage of art therapy, experiencing numerous benefits as a result:
Individuals who have no healthy tools for expressing their emotions will be more inclined to turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms whenever they become distressed, such as substance use or self-harm. Having a safe and supportive space to explore, identify and process your thoughts and feelings can lessen your chances of utilizing harmful methods to self-soothe if you encounter triggers.
Art therapy is usually used with other forms of therapy because it's less intense and lets you take a break from the work of processing your feelings aloud. Knowing there's an alternative when traditional therapy sessions get intense can provide you with something to look forward to and help you better manage any post-therapy responses, such as exhaustion.
Sometimes, all you need to experience a personal breakthrough is a change of perspective or a new environment. If you find that other treatment methods haven't worked well for you, you can try something new with art therapy. Visualizing your SUD through art gives you a tangible representation of it that can provide additional context for you and your therapist to work with. You'll create an outlet for discovering emotions, ideas and memories you'd previously repressed.
The act of creating art lets you be in control — something that many people with SUD may feel they lack. It can be difficult to believe in your abilities to become well if you've suffered previously struggled with recovery. However, feelings of disappointment and low self-belief don't have to be permanent. Art gives you the freedom to imagine a new, sober reality for yourself.
Even when you're not in the therapist's office, you can take your art therapy outside the context of the office by creating artwork at home or through digital therapy sessions. When you know you have the ability to produce art anywhere, you can feel more empowered and self-confident throughout your recovery.
As mentioned, creating art triggers the brain's reward center and helps increase your self-opinion and motivation. These positive components are essential to facilitating a successful recovery journey. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed or stressed while recounting difficult life experiences, detoxing from substances and avoiding triggering people and places.
Managing your stress throughout the process can help you stay the course and remain driven and hopeful that recovery is possible.
Art's healing power is easily accessible to everyone. At Diamond House Detox, we help you effectively use this treatment to your highest benefit while on your path to sobriety. Art therapy sessions from Diamond House Detox allow you to use nonverbal communication techniques to express underlying emotions and progress down the path to recovery.
We have multiple locations serving Northern California, offering individualized care in a safe, home-like environment to all clients. You can enjoy peace of mind knowing you'll have a private room, access to experienced, compassionate professionals and closely attentive detox care during your treatment.
If you or a loved one is ready to begin recovery, get in touch with us today.