Our souls respond to art, even if we don’t believe we’re creative in any way.

colorful paintsBecause of this, art therapy is often a good holistic approach for maintaining sobriety. It allows you to experience emotion, relay perceptions, find peace, and explore new ideas.

The human relationship with art is integrated into our very being. Think of any ancient culture, and you know it through the pottery, paintings, architecture, writings, and other media left behind. We have a primal connection to the aspiration of beauty, and it does us good to be in the seat of creation for a while.

You don’t have to be the next Kahlo, Bernstein, Morrison, or Chihuly to benefit from art therapy. Simply permit yourself the time to create without fear or filters.

The Definition of Art Therapy

Using art as a deliberate form of therapy started in the 1940s. Many official organizations exist around the world to help license professionals in the practice. The Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) defines it as “using art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic and healing process.”

Healing after substance abuse often requires a multi-layered plan. The physical aspect is usually taken care of through detoxification and other medical care. The mental and emotional components are sometimes addressed through a variety of techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy; talk therapy with a group or counselor; exercise and other forms of recreation; eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, also known as EMDR; and many other methods. Art therapy is another tool to help people move toward better wellness.

This technique is often used in addiction treatment because it offers someone the chance to:

  • Restore or improve wellbeing
  • Develop better self-awareness and healthier self-esteem
  • Experience emotions through a safe, nonjudgmental approach
  • Understand and resolve emotional conflicts
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Improve social skills

ATCB professionals stress that participating in this therapy isn’t simply for the sake of creating art: it’s to expand whole person wellness. Process matters more than product. Learning to enjoy the process is an extra bonus.

The Benefits of Art Therapy

Participants in art therapy may use any number of creative outlets and mediums to help move through certain issues, such as:

  • A traumatic event, either experienced or witnessed
  • Reconciling past addiction behavior
  • A mental health condition

For individuals recovering from substance abuse, an art therapist may suggest creating something that reveals how they feel about themselves or a certain event. This clinical approach won’t evaluate how someone paints or draws as much as it explores what tangible representation reveals about an emotion.

Art therapy is particularly helpful for encouraging people to acknowledge negative emotions and find meaningful ways to work through them. This recognition leads to a better understanding that sadness, anger, grief, and other feelings are part of being human. Understanding a wide range of emotions opens the door to managing them effectively.

Participants may also learn more about being mindful in the present moment and what that looks or feels like. This is a beneficial technique for controlling reactions to triggers and learning how to pause.

Expression through art is also another tool that helps change behavior. For example:

  • Sketching out a problem may be a way to resolve it, because it’s out of your head and placed in front of you, where the answers are clearer.
  • Using free movement, with or without music, as a method to release nervous pent-up energy allows for an acceptance of why this is necessary from time to time.
  • Creating a collage of people, places, experiences, and moments you’re grateful for reaffirms this through visual representation when you’re feeling down.
  • Writing a letter to someone who hurt or betrayed you, but never sending it, permits you to safely explore the emotions involving this person, and learn constructive ways to let go.

Creative therapeutic applications like these and many others are direct yet non-verbal ways to:

  • Reduce the psychological distress that may have prompted addictive behavior
  • Develop greater resilience to handle external stressors
  • Identify boundaries, when to establish them, and when to let them go
  • Alleviate anxiety or depression
  • Communicate fears and insecurities
  • Deal with concerns about addiction and recovery
  • Accept a difficult decision or situation

There are many clinical techniques your certified art therapist may use. These include active imagination, which is more free association to aspects of the recovery process; Gestalt method, which uses the art as a starting point to prompt deeper discussion; and third-hand approach, during which the therapist helps someone create art but gives the individual total control over the end result.

Take What You Learn into Daily Life

So, while art therapy isn’t always about the art, you may discover it’s the perfect conduit to allow more joy and stability in your life. As you develop new habits for maintaining sobriety, look around your community for opportunities for creative self-expression.

For example, in the Tucson area, there are many artistic outlets, including:

  • The All Souls Procession. Initially created by artist Susan Johnson after the death of her father, it’s “a sanctuary for community members from all walks of life to express their grief and loss in a celebration of creative energy and rejoicing of life.” The annual event is a lively mix of dance, aerial arts, workshops, installations, and more. It’s organized by Many Mouths One Stomach, a non-profit arts collective, and always welcomes new artists and volunteers.
  • The Sonoran Glass School. Work with delicate yet resilient glass as a metaphor for forming new life from raw material. Various classes in torch work, glass blowing, kiln-fusing, and more.
  • The Drawing Studio. “Where art meets life” is its motto. Multiple classes throughout the year invite you to try your hand at a variety of options.

Opportunities at Cottonwood Tucson

The inpatient rehabilitation schedule at Cottonwood Tucson includes various forms of holistic approaches designed to help you develop recovery methods that work for you, including art therapy. Review a typical patient schedule to learn more.

By Tracey L. Kelley

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