Benefits of Art Therapy for Recovering Addicts

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).

What Is Art Therapy?

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.

How Does Art Therapy Help With Addiction?

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.

Common Forms of Art Therapy for Addiction

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:

  • Group art therapy: Group therapy allows clients to collaborate on art projects or work side by side during guided art activities. Working alongside other people in art therapy allows you to share your experiences with individuals who can understand your situation. It also helps you learn new healthy coping mechanisms. You can discuss your art with peers and with your therapist and release emotions in a way that may feel less intimidating than normal group therapy.
  • Third hand: The third hand is an art therapy intervention that enables art therapists to supplement a client's artistic endeavors without applying their own worldview or biases or misinterpreting the client's art. A therapist might cut up pictures for an individual to use in a collage or suggest an idea for an art task. Both client and therapist work together to provide space for the client's emotions, which is a useful trust-building technique when seeing a new therapist.
  • Gestalt art therapy: Therapists may use Gestalt principles in guiding their clients through art therapy. Gestalt principles encourage you to focus on the present moment instead of past experiences and raise your self-awareness of how your behaviors and thoughts affect your life. This treatment may also involve re-enacting past experiences — and in the case of art therapy, drawing or painting them — to decipher how you feel about those events.

Art Therapy Project Ideas

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:

  • Words-to-live-by collage: You can make a collage of inspiring words and phrases using posterboard or cardboard paper and magazine cut-outs. Or, find words, poems and phrases that speak to you by searching online and printing them out. These sayings can motivate you each day to keep progressing toward your recovery goals.
  • Self-portraits: Self-portraits help individuals pinpoint their recovery identity, self-identity, traumas and coping mechanisms. These illustrations open a window into possible future insights, such as a person's recovery goals or potential for self-destructive behaviors. This foreshadowing can help therapists address the signs of a personal crisis or relapse before it arises.
  • Painting emotions: Painting your feelings helps you release them when words aren't as effective. You can choose various colors and brush types to create a picture that adequately describes how you feel currently or felt in the past. You could use common color-emotion associations, like red for anger, or create your own.
  • Affirmation creation: Affirmations can help you change your mindset and raise your self-esteem by helping you believe you can accomplish whatever you put your mind and energy toward. You can create small trinkets like affirmation keychains, buttons or patches to carry with you and refer to throughout the day.
  • Memory or self-care container: You can create a self-care or memory container from scratch by shaping it from clay or building it from wood or another material. Once you've finished the container itself, add reminders of pleasant memories — like letters from loved ones — written affirmations, positive notes and other belongings you consider to be self-care items.
  • Mindfulness beads: Creating a bracelet or necklace of mindfulness beads can help you sharpen your focus for meditation so that you can stay grounded in the present moment. The repeated movements of your fingers on the beads can be calming, helping you practice breath control and mantra repetition without distraction.
  • Zentangles: Zentangles are abstract black and white patterns created within small paper tiles. These patterns have no planned design and aren't meant to create a distinct picture of an object — they're simply meant to encourage creativity and renewed personal well-being. You can create these art pieces using basic shapes like circles, lines and dots.

The Freedom of Creation and Expression

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.

4 Benefits of Art Therapy

Any individual trying to overcome SUD or a mental health disorder can take advantage of art therapy, experiencing numerous benefits as a result:

1. Provides a Safe Outlet for Emotional Expression

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.

2. Uncovers Suppressed Emotions

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.

3. Empowers Clients

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.

4. Aids in Managing Stress

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.

Recover Through Art With Diamond House Detox

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.


Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
Latest posts by Vicky Magobet (see all)