Creative Art Therapy

Arts, Creative arts, Expressive arts, mental health, Psychology, wellness -

Creative Art Therapy


In Creative Art Therapy, the counselor will utilize various artistic outlets to assist the client in expressing themselves and their subconscious thoughts. There are various forms of expressive arts therapy that the counselor can utilize in therapy. The voice, music, fragrance, writing, painting, sculpture, and theater arts can all be employed in the therapeutic setting to assist the counselor and the client on their journey. The Creative Art modalities help to foster an environment that is conducive to personal development, increased self-awareness, and exploration. Creativity is supported in the expressive therapeutic setting and this support can help to improve outcomes with the client and these creative modalities and their benefits aresupported by theory and practice. This paper explores severalexpressive therapeutic options and their benefits and effects.


Creative Art Therapy

Creative Art Therapy is supported by philosophical and theoretical perspectives. Music therapy, a form of Creative Art Therapy is defined as a way to, “address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of individuals of all ages.”(Jamabo and George, 2014, p.228) Music, a form of art is often used alone or in conjunction with other expressive and creative methods.

Music is employed with the intent of, “…restoring, maintaining and improving emotional, physical, physiological and spiritual health and wellbeing.”(p.228) Utilizing the creative arts in the therapeutic setting can help prevent and reduce mental illness and suffering. Unlike prescriptive counterpart often used in health settings, “..This type of treatment has not been proven to have any negative or adverse disturbing effect on patients or its users.”(Jamabo and George, 2014, p.228) The creative arts and creativity provide treatment and healing and can be used by all.

Perspectives and Theories

Three Psychological Approaches that often support the use of Expressive Art Therapy and it’s effectiveness, in the therapeutic setting would be the Psychodynamic approach, the Person Centered approach, and the Humanistic approach.  

The humanistic principles suggests that,

…people have an innate ability to be creative… The creative process is healing…Personal growth and higher states of consciousness are achieved through self-awareness, understanding, and insight…”(Rogers, 1993, p.7)

In the Humanistic approach, we are meant to be creative and are intended to explore our consciousness to become more self-aware. This helps us find peace and deepened feelings of understanding.

The Humanistic approach supports that all of us are connected and that this connection, “…exists between our life-force-our inner core, or soul-and the essence of all beings.” (Rogers, 1993, p.8) This explains why we feel confused or conflicted when we are not exploring these parts of ourselves in a way that feels authentic and expressive. We are meant toexplore our subconscious thoughts and emotions. The Expressive Art modalities help us feel whole and give us a creative platform for exploration.

The Person-Centered Approach

The Person-Centered approach provides an opportunity for the client to be valued, understood and respected. Rogers (1993) supports that, “…person centered expressive therapy is based on very specific humanistic principles.”(p.7) Carl Rogers helped to develop the Person-Centered approach and his daughter hascontinued to develop this concept. In this approach,

…the therapist attempts to provide a growth-promoting environment through active and empathetic listening with unconditional positive regard…”(Kim, 2010, p.94)

This empathetic listening along with unconditional positive regard creates an environment that is prime for creativity, feelings of safety, and freedom of expression.

In the creative therapeutic setting that utilizes the Person-Centered approach, the therapist would offer,

…non-conditional caring… to her clients and their art, movement, sound, poetry, and drama…expressive arts therapists maintain a positive and caring attitude toward clients, helping them to accept any negative feelings, including outrage, aggression, anger, and violence.(Kim, 2010, p.94)

The therapist is not there to place judgment. They are these to support expression and exploration. The Person-Centered approach seamlessly integrates into the artistic therapeutic process. The person centered approach provides a prime environment for expression and exploration of subconscious thought and emotions.

The Psychodynamic Theory

The Psychodynamic Theory supports that in an environment that is considered safe and supportive, personal growth can take place. In the Psychodynamic Theory,

Personal integration of the intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions occurs by taking time to reflect on and evaluate these experiences.” (Rogers, 1993, p.8)

In this theory, the therapist works with the client to evaluate their inner and outer experiences. Using art to explore and evaluate different experience or feelings could offer much relief and increased understanding.

Neurological theories

Besides the theoretical perspectives that support Expressive Art Therapy, neurological studies also illustrate the effectiveness of this healing modality. Our brains process sound, vision, and everything else we experience and release chemicals and hormones that impact our emotional state and wellbeing.Paulson, et al (2013) explain that

…there are parts of the brain that process complex sound, parts of the brain that process syntactic components of language and music, parts of the brain that process meaning, parts of the brain that process emotion… (p.69)

When considering that different parts of the brain work together to create our perception of experience, the expressive arts appear to be a natural method that therapists could employ to simultaneously improve client experience and promoteheightened states of awareness.

Utilizing writing, speech, sound, sight, smell, and movement, along with other expressive outlets provides a great space for exploration into activities that challenge the client and the therapist to think in new ways. Sharma and Jagdev (2012) explain that,

Music therapy is thought to activate biochemical and electrical memory material across corpus callosum, thus enhancing the ability of the two hemispheres to work in unity, rather than in opposition…(p.55)

What are considered to be the left and right hemispheres of the brain are able to create stronger connections when music is present. This helps to enhance the learning process and receptivity. Increased receptivity could make us more inclined to understanding  others and ourselves, giving us access to “…our human potential” (Sharma and Jagdev, 2012, p.55) Sharma and Jagdev (2012) also comment that music has the ability to,

stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, as well as reduce levels of cortisol and noradrenaline, hormones related to stress. (p.55)

Utilizing music to reduce the hormones related to stress; cortisol and corandrenaline. could help to reduce the occurrence heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other conditions related to inflammation, stress, or excess fat stores in the body.

Utilizing active and passive music therapy lets the client focus on two different aspects of the audio experience. The passive mode, “…gives importance to listening…may be beneficial to almost all forms of ailments.” (Sharma and Jagdev, 2012, p.53)  Passive  music therapy has been linked to, “…enhancing the concentration and memory…boosting self-confidence, to reduce the stress and strain…“ (Sharma and Jagdev, 2012, p.53) Both, the active and passive mode of music exploration are beneficial to emotional development and focus on complimentary aspects of wellbeing.

The active mode of experiencing music focuses on the client’s active participation in the process of creating the finished work. This mode of active experience and expression has been linked to,

…immense help in neurological problems, like neurological aphasia (receptive aphasia and expressive aphasia) in the segment of alternative medicines to help children to reduce speech problems, to enhance speech fluency, to reduce hyper activity in hyperactive children…”(Sharma and Jagdev, 2012, p.5)

Expressive art therapies like music and expressive writing can help increase awareness, self-esteem, and other positive emotions. Sharma and Jagdev (2012) also explain that, “Music can reduce aggressive behavior and improve self-esteem in children with highly aggressive behavior.(p.56) This could be highly useful in alcohol/drug abuse, detention, and school settings where aggressive behavior may be more common.

Learning and Music

Our brains process information in a more effective manner in a therapeutic setting that utilizes expressive methods. Many use music when studying or use songs to help them remember information or ideas. This is often done with children. Schulkind (2015) explains that music may be effective in learning settings because

…People may remember certain texts or songs over long periods of time because they rehearse them frequently…they sing these songs often, either at the time of learning or periodically…it fosters excessive rehearsal…(p.221)

Although the frequent rehearsal may be the reason we learn things that are presented in a musical manner, the notes in the music are also stimulating parts of our brain. Combiningrepetition with the presentation of new or familiar material,along with musical notes and tones, could contribute to increased learning and the creation of new synapses. Music is able to

…communicate complex ideas and emotions to the listener, yet they do so using abstract rather than concrete symbols.(Schulkind, 2015, p.223)

These abstract representations allow for exploration and analysis of color, tone, setting, and much more. Art provides a flexible and explorative way of undertaking a situation.

The Therapeutic Relationship

The counselor’s role is to support the client through an experience. The Expressive Arts are a therapeutic option that can foster creativity, expression, and personal development. It is important for the counselor to be flexible in the expressive art modality they choose for their client. Although the therapeutic relationship is one the counselor is able to mold for the benefit of the client, it is helpful if the therapist develops an understanding of the creative outlets the client currently experiments with or practices. Perhaps the client has a certain type of art that they enjoy. This might be a great option for the counselor to explore with the client. If the counselor is used to exploring certain artistic methods, this provides an opportunity to invite them to share in this method.

It is helpful if a counselor utilizes art in their personalhealing or exploration process. Rogers(1993) illustrates why this helpful when she writes,

The facilitator’s values, attitudes, and way of being establish a safe space for the participant… to take emotional risks: to venture into the land of authenticity.(p.12)

Being familiar with the creative art modalities will help to ensure these options are implemented in a seamless manner that displays conformability with technique.

Expressive Art Modalities

There are numerous expressive arts modalities. Stuckey and Nobel (2010) write that in their Expressive Art Therapy research, “…Four primary therapies emerged: music engagement, visual arts therapy, movement-based creative expression, and expressive writing.” (p.254) Listening to music, song writing, painting, sculpture, dance, journaling, and writing stories are all expressive art modalities utilized in the therapeutic setting. The Creative arts allow the client to express themselves in ways that most modern societies save for means of entertainment, play, or work.

Music and Sound

Music engagement has been found to be extremely effective in the therapeutic process, especially in clients living with anxiety. Stuckey and Nobel (2013) support this when they write, “In particular, music therapy has been shown to decrease anxiety…” (p.255) Because “ and language share some of the same neural architecture” (Paulson, et al, 2013, p.69), listening to music, creating music, writing songs, singing, humming, screaming and  many more auditory methods may be utilized in the therapeutic process to support the client.

In the group setting, music engagement is particularly helpful. Stuckey and Nobel (2010) write that, “The pleasure shared by participants in the healing process through a music therapy program can help to restore emotional balance as well.” (p.255) Sharing music and discussing it or how it resonated with you in a group setting can be therapeutic for the group and it’s members.

Music therapy can be and often is an inexpensive and oftenfree way of providing support and relief in the group and individual setting. Jamaba and George (2014) support this when they write that music therapy is, “effective and easily available and admissible adjunct to psychotherapeutic interventions.”(p.228) Using music as a therapeutic modality can help in treating depression, “…as a mere sequence of notes arranged in time (music)…”(p.228) and “can activate the same reward centres in the brain as drugs such as cocaine…”(Jamaba and George, 2014, p.228) Music along with the other artistic healing methods listed here can evoke emotions and stimulate us in ways we are not usually stimulated.

In the group setting, therapeutic artistic methods could provide feelings of shared release and positive emotions. Reflecting on how music in the therapeutic setting made the client or group members feel while supporting creative expression of thoughts and emotions could be helpful in music therapy. There are several methods of understanding employed when utilizing music therapy.

Three means of finding  meaning in music with the client include, exploring the music’s, “Extramusical…Intramusical and…Musicogenic Meaning…”(Arbib, M. A., 2013, p.153)  Arbib (2013) describes that our development of Extramusical meaning is explored through specific lens. Arbib (2013) lists that we look for music to be, “…iconic, indexical, and symbolic…” (p.153) Whether the music is familiar or easily identifiable helps to determine how it will affect us and our emotional state and mode. It also effects how receptive we are to the music and what’s being shared.

Airbib (2013) writes that “…Intramusical meaning emerges from the act of referencing a structural musical element to another structural musical element.”(p.153) Rhythm can make us more likely to be receptive to a sign and it’s message. This is why people like to remix songs or make “riddim” mixes that have multiple songs on the same beat. This makes us more likely to welcome the new songs because of the familiar beat and rhythm.

Musicogenic meaning focuses on emotions, actions, and preferences. This perception “…emerges from the physical processes (such as actions), emotions, and personality-related responses (including preferences) (Arbib, M. A., 2013, p.153)Musicogenic meaning would be great in a therapeutic setting where participants are looking to explore subconscious thoughts, emotions. Playing songs then creating expressive art works like paintings, poems and stories could all be useful in the therapeutic setting.

Simply being in a space with others while music is being played can change the atmosphere and emotion of those in the setting.  Kittay (2008) supports that music affects the environment and writes that naturally, music,

contributes to a shift from disinterest in, withdrawal from and conflict with the environment towards a shared conscious aesthetic experience. (p.51)

Consider the grocery store or the shopping center you like or a play or concert. Music places us in shared emotional states.Kittay (2008) illustrates how the expressive arts can do this passively when explaining that when music was employed in a group setting,

Consideration was given to what might relax the staff because their behaviour in the dining room was also critical to creating a relaxed environment. If staff were calm, it increased the likelihood that the residents would also be calm. (p.51)

Whether used passively or actively, the expressive arts offer an opportunity to affect mood and the environment, individually and collectively.

Sound and Breath

Simply producing sound  and manipulating or freeingbreath can help the client in the therapeutic setting. Consider that many people experience life feeling as though they are not heard or listened to. The therapist may choose to utilize, “ …deep breathing exercises; natural sounds the body makes such as yawning, laughing, or sneezing; and verbal discussion”(Clements-Cortés, 2013, p.40) Producing sound, after inhaling deeply could be seen as extremely therapeutic. The clients or group should feel that it’s ok to express themselves in a way that feels authentic to them. If they want to make a sound, they should be able to.

The release of the breath and the sound produced during deep breathing could be considered a therapeutic method thatreleases stress or other feelings or emotions. Holistic methods such as yoga and meditation could be highly effective in the therapeutic setting. Connecting the mind and body through sound helps to make one feel more connected to one’s emotions. Consider the relief felt after screaming, yawning, or crying. Our bodies feel the relief of emotions through the release of sound.

Another effective expressive arts modality is visual art.Like music engagement or auditory methods, the visual arts help the client explore themselves and their surroundings through using color and artistic elements.

Visual Art

Visual art comprises of sculpture, painting, ceramics, drawing, and much more. Rogers(1993) explains that “Art is a visceral experience…Color, line, and form can reveal our energy levels, our feeling states, and our self-concepts... All bear kinesthetic messages.” (p.69) When the client is able to express themselves through visual arts, they are able to transfer their thoughts and emotions into a physical representation that can be observed, analyzed, and understood by others. The colors the client chooses to use, the tools they choose, and the manner in which they create their artwork all reveals  emotion and thoughts. Rogers (1993) illustrates how we can use art to heal when she writes,

Visual arts offer the opportunity to express ourselves dramatically, poignantly, and colorfully, thereby gaining insights as to who we are. We can release our feelings, expressing them nonverbally, and gain insight into our deeper selves by viewing the art. (p.70)

With visual art, anger, pain, fear, and emotions that might be causing issues in the client’s life can be expressed through color or images. Instead of having to talk about painful emotions we might not be ready to release, the therapist can work with the client to create artwork. This artwork would be made with no regard for how it looks because it is not for aesthetic appeal.

Visual Art helps us release and reveal subconsciousemotions and thoughts that have been hidden or submerged. Much of what we are feeling is not clear to us but we feel that something is wrong or missing. Because most of our thoughts are subconscious, art provides the client an outlet to communicate without speaking and can actually help to unveil things that can’t be spoken because the client is not aware of them. “Through our intense focusing during the creative act, we actually transform the repressed feelings into constructive energy.” (Rogers, 1993, p.70) This constructive energy can help the client find balance and healing and improved self-esteem.

Another great aspect of visual art is that we can preservewhat’s created and look at in the future. Visual art also gives the client something to reflect upon through the counseling process and could help them to remember what they’d been experiencing when they created their work. The client’s artwork may help them recognize their growth by comparing earlier works to more recent creations.

Expressive writing

Writing is considered one of the most effective ExpressiveArt therapies. When used in conjunction with visual are or other art modalities, this can be a powerful tool that helps the client understand their experience at a much deeper level. Journaling is considered to be effective and is a method that many people utilize every day. Some might keep a diary or journal to write their daily experiences. While not in therapy, this is a useful tool that allows the person to express themselves and their experience in a free flowing manner. Rogers (1993) writes that, “Many people find writing to be the greatest healer of all…’ (p.9) Combining therapeutic artistic methods with complimentary creative modalities can be used to enhance experiences in the therapeutic or everyday setting.

Fragrance and Emotion

Fragrance and scent can be used in an expressive manner. I manufacture therapeutic room sprays and find that scents like patchouli, fir needle, vanilla, cedar wood and ginger lead to a cozier and more pleasant atmosphere. While researching this topic, Retiveau,  et al (2004) support that I might feel this way because in their study with women participants,

With the “woody citrus coniferous” scent, respondents experienced higher hostility and tension. The “floral chypre citrus” fragrance decreased anger and confusion. The “floral woody” scent had the lowest Total Mood Disturbance score and lowered depression, tension and confusion. (p.373)

Scents have an impact on emotions and can promote the release of either positive or negative emotions. This can affect mood can either aid in reducing or increasing feelings of depression and anxiety. Aromatherapy could be highly effective in the therapeutic setting when combined with music, dance, writing, and other forms of art.

Pleasant scents in a setting of healing, growth, and expression could promote increased feelings of positive regard, freedom, feelings of positive emotion and insightful thoughts in a group or individual setting. This form of expressive art could also be used to increase awareness or reduce anxiety. Lavender and vanilla could be highly effective in the therapeutic setting.In Retiveau,  et al’s (2004) study,

main odorant oils present in the fragrances were vanilla and lavender (T), eucalyptus and spearmint (S), bergamot and juniper (V), wintergreen and lemongrass (B), cedar wood and clary (Y) and a complex of oriental plants (F). A placebo (no scent) also was used: it consisted of water (50%), ethyl alcohol (25%) and propylene glycol (25%)…(p.3)

In the study, the oriental plant scent and the wintergreen and lemongrass scents were the least preferred. I imagine these might smell like cleaners or something used for medicinal purposes. The female respondents found that fragrance (V) and fragrance (S) were “perceived as similarly intense.” (Retiveau, et al, 2004, p.3) The female participants in this study liked the scent made with clary the most.

Bergamot is considered an uplifting or energizing scent while lavender is considered relaxing and soothing. Retiveau, et al (2004) found that,

…fragrance T had the highest mean values for feminine, classic, natural, romantic and sensual, whereas fragrance V rated higher than S and T for modern, energizing, fresh and light attributes…(p.7)

Combining fragrance with sound and other expressive therapeutic techniques, with the permission of the client or group can be highly effective. Passively using scent and audio aids to promote an expressive and creative environment can produce amazing results and deepened levels of self-awareness.

Creativity, Gender, and Sexuality

In Expressive Arts Therapy, creativity is promoted in the therapeutic setting when the therapist provides the client with “The same conditions they found basic to fostering a facilitative client-counselor relationship…”(Rogers, 1993, p.13). The counselor’s support has to let the client feel that they are in a safe space where they can share and explore heir deeperthoughts and emotions. The therapeutic setting is a place where the client is not judged, but instead receives attention, empathy and understanding in a present and non-judgmental manner. In the therapeutic setting, utilizing creativity through,

Art therapy is especially useful in addictions and trauma because it side-steps denial defense mechanisms… it accesses feelings in a non-threatening way by allowing clients to connect to their emotions…It connects the client to their unconscious self and helps begin to repair the disconnection engendered by trauma and addiction…” (Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly ,2004, p.5)

This could greatly benefit people who’ve experienced traumas like child abuse, sexual abuse, or domestic violence. Those having issues expressing themselves and their experience verbally could find ways of sharing and healing with creative art modalities.

Women experience many forms of trauma at elevates rates when compared to male counterparts. Earlier interventions that allow these experiences to be expressed in a creative manner could lead to healing. Integrating the expressive art modalities could offer a holistic healing option that is available to all women along with males.

People who may be questioning their sexuality or have mixed emotions about their gender or a strong feeling that they could also use the expressive arts to help them explore their feelings in a healthy way. In a safe environment that supports creativity, feelings and emotions could be explored and subconscious emotions could help the individual explore and live a life that feels authentic.  One artist describes how she explores her inner thoughts about sexuality through art when she says,

The significance of all the symbols being the same colour would be far bigger than if one stood out…by making them all the same colour I am showing that the two girls are no different from the other couples, and hopefully those viewing my work will see this.(Addison, 2005, p.28)

Employing color, symbolism, and imagery, societal constructsand ideologies are explored. The artist is able to express their feelings and thoughts in a creative way and those viewing the artist’s creation are able to process what the art means to them. This method of sharing and expression can provoke thought, conversation, understanding, and exploration of one’s innermost thoughts and opinions, in a passive or active manner. This could be highly effective in the therapeutic setting when working with someone exploring their gender or sexuality or feelings of racism, sexism, or bias. Even if the art is not shared, creating the art would be highly therapeutic and explorative.

Someone sharing their experience when addressing genderand sexuality could lead to even greater feelings of acceptance for individuals and for others in society. Viewing and being exposed to art, created in a setting that promotes freedom of expression and creativity could increase feelings of safety could alleviate stress and anxiety along with feelings of depression. Exploring gender and sexuality through expressive art in this setting could, as the artist in Addison’s (2005) journal explains,

…lead people to think whether they do have inner prejudices when they realize there is a lesbian couple in my piece, and this may show them that having these prejudices inside them is unnecessary…(p.28)

Being able to increase understanding and awareness of sexual and gender experiences through creative methods, in a supportive environment could help many live lives that are authentic to them at a younger age and could also help them and those around them be more understanding of their experience.Hall (2007) explains that discussing sexuality in the classroom setting could have offer a “…positive impact…for students who are gay…” (p.87) and “…would combat potential feelings of isolation.” (Hall, 2007, p.87)  Feelings of isolation can increase negative thoughts and emotions along with feelings of lowered self-esteem. Isolation can lead to thoughts of depression and suicide.

Instituting creative arts programs in schools and supportingthe creative exploration and expression of sexuality, trauma, race, and gender could promote healthier emotional, and personal development in youth, nationwide, and possibly worldwide. Much of the decision whether this program will be crate in public and private is often left up to funding. Many public and private settings like schools and hospitals don’t offer these types of programs because they don’t have the money to institute them. In, “About Face Youth Theatre's Faves” (2008), The Broadway Youth Center (TBYC) writes that a woman they interviewed said that when these programs are ended due to funding, “…there’s no way of finding any kind of information anywhere… it needs to get talked’s not fair to students.”(p.31) The TBYC(2008) later writes that,

…members point to the government as a large part of the problem. Under Title v, federal funding for sex education is available for schools, but only ones that teach abstinence-only programs. (p.31)

Research that promotes the effects of creative art therapy in the school setting could help to remedy this issue. Maybe using the expressive arts to discuss abstinence would help. This could lead to introspection and healthier living, for many.


With a therapeutic model that focuses on creative art and expressive techniques, programs that support mental wellnesscould be instituted at a minimal cost, thereby making them accessible to more people. This could lead to major shifts in social, cultural, ethnic, racial, and economic groups leading to a more cohesive and healthier society. Shared creative experiences awaken subconscious thoughts in us all and promote introspection. This introspection leads to deeper understanding and increase self-awareness.







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