Expressive therapy is a common practice used with young children, teens, and adults, in both individual and group settings. The intention of this unique approach to therapy is to help the patient develop and grow personally, and ultimately to transform to the person that they want to be. Expressive therapy for children and teens struggling with behavioral issues such as ADHD or emotional disorders such as depression can include music, movement, or various forms of artwork. In these settings, the therapist then observes the child’s behavior and encourages the child to talk about their experience.
For older patients such as teens and adults, journaling, storytelling, reading various forms of appropriate literature and poetry, and even creating life maps, videos, and scrapbooks or photo albums can help in the discovery of their life’s meaning. In many cases, teen and adult patients find expressive therapy helpful when trying to articulate their life story, especially if it is difficult for them to vocalize their experiences.
Examples of expressive therapy
In expressive therapy, patients will leverage several of their senses as they explore their inner and outer world. Through the creation of different art forms and the experience that it involves, your teen’s therapist can help them to communicate their feelings better. Further, the sense of accomplishment achieved through the creation of art can be very motivating. Of course, the creative process will highlight and analyze the teen’s challenges and issues as well, and because the therapeutic work is based on the creative process, not on the final result, it is not necessary to have a background or training in the arts to benefit from expressive therapy.
Throughout the process, your teen will discover new and unique ways to use nonverbal communication to share their inner feelings that they were unable to previously articulate. Overall benefits of expressive therapy include:
- Acknowledgment and recognition of feelings lurking inside
- Enhanced self-esteem
- Emotional release
- Enhance the ability to cope with stress
- Build resilience and coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations
- Lessen symptoms and feelings of depression and anxiety
- Reduce various treatment needs, such as hospitalization, rehabilitation stays, etc.
- Increase overall satisfaction with life
Some key examples of expressive therapy are listed below.
Art therapy uses media, images, and the process of creativity itself to develop artwork that reflects development, abilities, personality, interests, concerns, and conflicts. Therapists leverage art therapy to help their patients reconcile emotional conflicts and to develop self-awareness, build social skills, manage challenging behavior, and learn how to problem-solve. Art therapy can also help to reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem. Many therapists turn to art therapy to help patients that are currently suffering from or dealing with the after-effects of mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abuse, etc. However, art therapy doesn’t always need to be conducted or led by a trained therapist. In many cases, professional artists are brought in to lead these courses. And often, they donate their time to use their skills and talents to help others.
Dance and movement theory
Dance and movement theory aligns the beliefs that the mind and body are one, and that the use of movement can enhance emotional, cognitive, and physical integration. When patients use dance and movement, it can help create changes in their feelings, cognition, behavior, and physical functioning. Therapists view dance and movement therapy as a holistic approach that helps the body through the connection of mind, body, and spirit. This therapy is often used in mental institutions, rehabilitation centers, and retirement communities.
Key benefits of this particular form of expressive therapy include:
- Understanding that movement is our first language. Nonverbal and physical communication begins in the womb and continues throughout the lifespan. Dance and movement therapists support that nonverbal language is equally important to verbal communication during the therapeutic and recovery process.
- Therapists often approach individual, couple, family, and group therapy sessions by watching, assessing, and occasionally intervening by watching movement as it emerges through various therapy sessions. This provides the therapist with additional insights that can help future sessions to progress.
Music therapy can have very positive impacts on the psychological, physical, cognitive, and social functioning of children, teens, and adults dealing with health or educational challenges. Music therapy has become an established profession and course of therapy as it addresses the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of patients. When assessing the strengths and needs of the patient, the music therapist is better able to administer the indicated treatment of creating, singing, movement, and/or listening to music. Through musical involvement in the context of therapy and recovery, patients find that their abilities strengthen and then transfer to other areas of their lives. Music therapy can also provide avenues of communication that can be extremely beneficial to patients who find it challenging to express themselves verbally. Researchers who have studied music therapy strongly support its efficacy in many areas such including overall physical rehabilitation and facilitation of movement, increasing people’s motivation to become engaged and take an active role in their treatment, providing impassioned support for clients and their families, and in allowing an appropriate outlet for the expression of feelings.
Music therapists often work with children, teens, and adults that are experiencing emotional health issues, including grief, anxiety, and depression. These therapists also work with patients to address rehabilitative needs after a stroke, a traumatic head injury, or in the cases of chronic illness such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
Sometimes, the families of patients are concerned that music therapy will not help their loved one, especially if their loved one doesn’t have musical abilities coming into the process. But these musical abilities are not necessary as trained musical therapists can ensure that activities are designed to meet the unique needs, abilities, and interests of the patient.
Throughout the creative process, the trained music therapist will work with the patient to actively create or produce music. Sometimes this includes the composition of a song, or perhaps engaging in music or song improvisation. Drumming is also often used in music therapy. Through the receptive process, the therapist can offer music listening exercises and experiences such as using music to facilitate relaxation in a patient or group. Patients sometimes feel compelled to discuss thoughts, feelings, and ideas that are elicited by that music.
Drama therapy (sometimes called media expressive) applies systematic and intentional use of drama and the theatrical process, products, and associations that allow a patient to express their story or solve a problem through drama. Drama therapy can be used to help the patient achieve a catharsis, extend the depth and breadth of their inner experiences, understand the meaning of various images, and strengthen their ability to observe personal roles while increasing flexibility.
Drama therapy uses play, projection, embodiment, role-playing, stories, metaphors, empathy, distancing, performance witnessing, and improvisation to help people make meaningful changes in their life. A drama therapist will start by assessing the needs of the patient and will then provide recommendations on the approaches that best meet the patient’s unique needs. Drama therapy can manifest in many forms that are dependent on the individual and group needs, skill, interests and ability levels, and therapeutic goals. Many drama therapists make use of written language, performance, or ritualism to enrich the creative process, which ultimately has a positive effect on the therapeutic process. Drama therapy is built on the foundation theater, psychology, psychotherapy, anthropology, play, and the interactive and creative processes.
Most patients who pursue or are recommended for drama therapy include those recovering from various forms of addiction. Also, dysfunctional families, developmentally disabled or delayed persons, survivors of abuse, prison inmates, the homeless, those with AIDS, older adults, at-risk youth, and the general public will benefit from drama therapy. For this reason, drama therapy is beneficial for individuals, families, and communities struggling with some sort of transition, loss, social stigmatization, isolation, and conflict. This unique form of therapy is also an effective solution for the treatment and prevention of addiction, anxiety, depression, or other conditions. Drama therapy can promote positive changes in a patient’s mood, empathy, and insight and can facilitate healthy relationships.
Poetry therapy (also known as bibliotherapy) leverages the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth. Poetry therapy is used as part of the approach for treatment for borderline personality issues, suicidal ideation, issues with self-identity, perfectionism, and grief.
As part of the therapeutic process, some patients may wish to explore their feelings and memories that are buried very deep in their subconscious to help them identify with how they may relate to what is happening in their life currently. Poetry is believed to be beneficial to this process as it can often:
- Serve as a vehicle for the expression of emotions that might be otherwise difficult for patients to express
- Promote self-reflection and exploration, which can increase self-awareness and help individuals make sense of their world and their current situation
- Aid individuals as they redefine their situation by opening up new ways to perceive reality
- Validate their personal emotional experiences and improve group cohesiveness by helping patients to realize that many of their experiences are shared by others, and thus they are not alone
Through the process of therapy, the therapist may introduce a poem or piece of literature and encourage the patient to react in some way. Specific poetry is selected based on its unique ability to describe, explain, and help identify or illuminate issues that are relevant to what is being discussed in the session. Selected poetry is then usually read aloud by the therapist or the patient so that the tone and rhythm of the poem can be experienced fully and as an immersion. In group, family, or couples’ therapy, individuals will often take turns reading from the different stanzas of the poetry, or in other cases will be asked to read the entire poem aloud in unison. While the poem is being read, the therapist will make a note of the various verbal and nonverbal reactions that is seen on the patient or others in the room, and these reactions will then be explored after the reading. Many therapists who use poetry to help their patients will recommend the following:
- “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
- The Armful” by Robert Frost
- The Journey” by Mary Oliver
- Talking to Grief” by Denise Levertov
- I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth
Additional approaches to expressive therapy
In addition to art, dance and movement, music, drama, and poetry, there are a variety of other expressive therapies that can be leveraged. The key is to look for the right therapy that will serve the needs of the patient as a whole, as not all expressive therapies will work for everybody. Other popular and highly effective forms of expressive therapy include yoga therapy, meditation therapy, and comedy/ improvisation.
Expressive therapy, regardless of the approach used, can be highly effective for patients dealing with anxiety, interpersonal relationship difficulties, learning disabilities and other educational challenges, grief and bereavement, eating disorders Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia conditions, terminal diseases such as cancer, alcohol and drug addiction, and trauma, including from abuse.
Expressive therapies that strive to improve mood and mental health can significantly reduce a patient’s risk of relapse into substance abuse. As such, these therapies work as a complement to more traditional approaches to rehabilitation and talk therapy, both during and after formal treatment. However, even without an underlying mental illness, expressive therapies can be highly effective at improving recovery rates and in helping patients maintain long-term abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
When people go through rough patches in their life, often it is difficult to clearly articulate how they are feeling. And often, they can’t see past the current day and hold fear for what the future will entail. Combining expressive therapy with traditional therapy and rehabilitation can help patients better express their feelings and develop safe and healthy methods to help them cope through the inevitable difficult times that life will bring in the future. While expressive therapy is not a requirement, most patients who do participate in expressive therapy find that it is highly effective.