Expressive and Art-Based Therapies for Addiction

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  1. Traditional Therapies vs. Expressive Therapies
  2. Expressive Therapies
  3. Example: Art Therapy in Addiction
  4. How to Access Treatment

Addressing Addiction

Far too often, addiction goes untreated. According to SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, only 10.4% of individuals who need treatment actually receive it.1 Fortunately, there are a wide variety of treatment options available, including both traditional approaches, such as behavioral therapies, and creative interventions, including expressive therapies.
Addressing Addiction

Research consistently demonstrates that no single treatment approach is perfect for everyone and rehabilitation plans need to be continually adapted to meet each person's unique needs. Frequently, the best approach is a variety of approaches, and many rehabilitation centers offer both traditional and expressive therapies. Creative therapies, specifically, offer individuals multiple avenues of expression and healing.


Traditional Therapies vs. Expressive Therapies

Drug addiction is a complex illness that impacts every aspect of a person's life. Due to the complexity of these disorders, treatment is diverse and can involve a variety of techniques.

Traditional Therapies

Traditional approaches for treating addiction include:

  • Behavioral therapies use a more structured approach to engage individuals in treatment and offer incentives for them to modify their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to drug use. Behavioral therapies strengthen a person's coping skills and manage environmental cues that trigger cravings or compulsive abuse. Examples of behavioral therapies include cognitive-behavioral therapy, contingency management, and couples/family behavioral therapy.2
  • Sometimes, medication is used in conjunction with behavioral therapies to aid in the rehabilitation process, particularly when treating opioid, tobacco, or alcohol abuse. For example, medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone can help individuals recover and reduce their illicit heroin use. While medication is an important element of treatment, research has shown that medication is significantly more effective when combined with other non-pharmacological treatments, like behavioral or expressive therapies.3

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Traditional Approaches vs. Expressive Therapies

Behavioral therapies and expressive therapies share the goal of helping a person recover from his or her addiction and preventing relapse; however, they approach this process differently. While behavioral therapies use incentives to change a person's actions, creative therapies use art to help individuals express themselves in a healthy and productive manner. Expressive therapies provide a means for a suffering person to convey his or her experiences and is increasingly being used in treatment programs.4

Expressive Therapies

Expressive therapies, sometimes called creative therapies or art-based treatment, offer an alternative approach to addiction.

Examples of expressive therapies generally include:

  • Art therapy.
  • Music therapy.
  • Dance/movement therapy.

Art Therapy

  • Art therapy uses art-making to enhance the emotional well-being of an individual. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts, access their emotions, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem, and achieve insight.5 Examples of art therapy include incident drawing, painting emotions, stress painting, making an art journal, and sculpting emotions.

Scientific research demonstrates benefits of art therapy; however, conclusions are limited due to smaller sample sizes and weak study designs. Generally, art therapy has helped individuals suffering from addiction to reduce denial and shame,6 communicate more effectively,7 and increase motivation to participate in treatment.8

Music Therapy

  • Music therapy, similarly to art therapy, helps individuals express their emotions during a time in their lives when this may prove difficult. Music therapy interventions include lyric analysis, relaxation training, songwriting, musical games, and music improvisation. During these music therapy activities, individuals both listen to music and engage in their emotions through sounds and words.9 Research has found many benefits of music therapy, including increasing positive emotions,10 promoting relaxation,11 and decreasing anxiety.12

Dance/Movement Therapy

  • Dance/movement therapy is another type of expressive therapy used to aid in addiction recovery. The American Dance Therapy Association defines dance/movement therapy as the therapeutic use of movement that helps integrate the emotional, cognitive, and physical aspects of an individual.13 Dance/movement therapy in addiction is sometimes referred to as a "dance to recovery." Individuals learn to experience their body sensations, including cravings, while modulating internal distress. Studies have found that dance therapy helps reduce anxiety and improve self-concept.14

Example: Art Therapy in Addiction

Art therapy is commonly used at rehabilitation centers to help individuals communicate their emotions in a non-verbal manner. There are two general categories of art therapy: "art as therapy" and "art psychotherapy." Both forms are used by art therapists in the treatment of addiction as a means to help their patients achieve insight and healing.5

Art as therapy asserts that art making is therapeutic because it offers an opportunity to express oneself imaginatively and authentically, and over time this will lead to personal fulfillment and recovery. A therapist using this approach might offer an individual a ball of clay without any specific prompt. In this scenario, the individual can create whatever he or she wishes as it is merely the process of creating something that facilitates healing.5

Art psychotherapy is based on the idea that art is a means of symbolic communication. This approach emphasizes the end product (e.g. drawings, paintings, sculptures), which is analyzed by a therapist and used to track treatment progress. During recovery, it may be difficult for some individuals to verbalize their painful thoughts or struggle with addiction. Art psychotherapy offers an alternative means of expression. Using this approach, the art therapist might give individuals canvas and paint, asking them to illustrate their emotions related to their addiction. This method may lead to self-discovery and then self-acceptance.5

How to Access Treatment

Expressive therapies are an excellent tool for individuals on the road to recovery. Art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, and other creative approaches all help a person express his or her emotions in other ways than just through talking.

  • SAMHSA offers an excellent behavioral health treatment services locator, which can be accessed at https:
  • Individuals may also contact their insurance companies.
  • If you are looking for inpatient options, call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? and ask for facilities with art or expressive-based therapies.


  5. Hass-Cohen, N. & Carr, R. (2008). Art therapy and clinical neuroscience. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

Additional Resources

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