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Women participating in art therapy

What Do Art and Addiction Treatment Have in Common?

A group of woman participating in art therapy movementsAt first glance, it might seem that art and addiction don’t have much to do with one another. We understand that, but art therapy is one of the holistic treatments we offer at Alpine Recovery Lodge.

When people hear that we offer art therapy to our patients, they have a lot of questions. They want to know what it is, how it works, and whether it can help people struggling with addiction.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is sometimes misunderstood, so let’s begin with a definition. Specifically, art therapy is a form of therapy in which clients use art, the creative process, and the artwork they create to express and explore their emotions.

The forms of art used may include drawing, painting, and sculpture. Typically, art therapists have a broad knowledge of visual art and creativity, as well as training in therapy. The goal of art therapy is to use art to enhance more traditional therapeutic techniques.

Art therapy may be practiced in hospitals, wellness centers, crisis centers, private practices, and in rehabilitation facilities like Alpine Recovery Lodge. It can be very effective at treating addiction, trauma, and mental health problems like depression.

Qualified art therapists have a master’s degree. Professional standards are set and maintained by the American Art Therapy Association (AATA).

What Happens in Art Therapy?

One question we get asked frequently is “What happens in an art therapy session?” That’s a good question to ask.

The short answer is that the art therapist will work with the patient, helping them learn about their creative process and create artwork. The focus is more on the process than on the finished product.

Because art therapists have training in both the visual arts and therapy, they guide the patients to use certain media that may help them express their emotions. For example, working with watercolors may be frustrating for some patients because they’re wet and can be difficult to control. A patient who struggles with anxiety may prefer something easier to control like colored pencils.

The specific form of an art therapy session may vary depending on the art therapist and the patient. Here are some specific things that the sessions may do:

  1. Expression of disturbance. Addiction is often linked to trauma of some kind. For some patients, expressing their trauma and the emotions associated with it can be impossible. Interpreting the artwork patients create in a therapy session can help the therapist understand the patient’s emotions and work with them to process them in a healthy way.
  2. Letting go of denial and shame. Denial and shame are negative emotions that can get in the way of healing. People who struggle with addiction may need a safe way to express their shame – and art can give them a way to do it.
  3. Embracing creativity. Creative expression is good for the brain. Even people who don’t think of themselves as artists can learn to express themselves through visual media.

The art therapist will direct the patient, introducing them to new concepts and media, and encouraging their use as a means of self-expression.

How Does Art Therapy Help with Addiction?

Now, let’s talk about some of the specific things that art therapy can do to help patients overcome addiction. There are four key things that art therapy can do.

Promote Personal Integration

Personal integration refers to a patient being able to express their emotions in a natural, honest, and healthy way. It’s strongly linked to self-image and confidence. Expressing their feelings through art helps recovering addicts address their emotions and bring them together into a coherent self-image – something that can be difficult to do with words.

Emotional and Impulse Control

It’s common for people who struggle with addiction to have a difficult time regulating their emotional responses. They may be prone to dramatic outbursts, particularly when they feel threatened or ashamed.

This behavior is also linked to poor impulse control – something that leads to addiction. Art expression can help patients learn to modulate their emotional responses and learn to view them as an experience instead of something that’s beyond their control.

Perception of the Self and Others

It can be very difficult for addicts to see themselves and others clearly. They may struggle with shame and that can cause a disconnect between the reality of who they are and how they perceive themselves.

Art therapy can help them stay in the present moment without getting distracted by anxiety, regret, and worry. Patients learn to identify their emotional responses to their own thoughts and other people. Over time, this art-induced mindfulness can be an important skill to prevent relapse.

Behavioral Change

Addiction is, at its core, behavior. For that reason, behavioral change is at the heart of any addiction treatment. It’s not easy to change the way we behave even if we don’t have a problem with substance abuse.

Art therapy can drive behavioral change because it is self-directed. While the art therapist provides guidance to the patient, ultimately, the decision of what to create and how to create it is for the patient to make.

Another way of looking at it is that art therapy gives patients a new outlet for their negative emotions and struggles. Instead of turning to their substance of choice, they can turn to artwork as a way of expressing themselves and coping with their emotions.

Common Questions about Art Therapy

So far, we’ve addressed some of the biggest questions you might have about art therapy. However, there are a few other things that we get asked by incoming patients and their loved ones. Let’s address those now.

Do patients need art experience or training to participate in art therapy?

No. The only training required is on the part of the therapist. Art therapists can work with patients who have no art experience at all and help them learn to explore the creative process and express their emotions through art.

What kind of art do patients make in art therapy?

The types of art a patient makes may vary depending on the therapist and the patient’s personal preferences. Here are some examples:

  • Creating models or sculptures with clay
  • Using papier-mâché or other media to create a mask
  • Painting with acrylics, watercolors, or other paints
  • Keeping an art journal
  • Sketching with pencils or charcoal

The therapist can help the patient choose the best media and projects to express themselves and accelerate the healing process.

Do art therapists critique their patients’ work?

Therapists do not critique their patients’ work. They work with their patients to interpret the art they create in an emotional framework. The insights gained through interpretation are then used to help the patient cope with negative emotions and memories as they relate to addiction.

Do patients keep the art they create in therapy?

Patients may choose to keep any or all the art they create in art therapy sessions. Some patients prefer to leave their creations with the therapist. It’s a personal choice.

Will your art therapist show your artwork to anybody else?

The art created in your art therapy sessions is protected by patient confidentiality just as anything you tell your therapist would be. Your therapist may not and will not share it with anybody else.

A patient may, of course, opt to share their artwork with the people in their lives. That’s their choice, but the therapist does not have the right to share their patients’ artwork with outsiders.

Art Therapy at Alpine Recovery Lodge

Artistic expression is deeply personal. As such, it can provide therapists and patients with insights into the patient’s emotional state – and point the way to healing.