Addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, or both, impacts the lives of millions of people. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 21.1 million people ages 12 and older batted substance abuse in 2016. However, addiction is a complex issue, with a multitude of possible causes and triggers. Addicts may have a difficult time expressing their feelings and getting to the bottom of their issues, and this is where traditional therapy sometimes falls short. Art therapy, with its potential for healing through applied art and music, offers a solution.
When I was a few years into my recovery, I started feeling burnt out from attending meeting after meeting. I was tired of talking. I signed up for an art therapy workshop, and I fell in love with painting and sculpting. I could shut my mind off for a bit and enjoy the feeling of creating something with my own two hands. I even have a few of my creations on display in my home to serve not only as a reminder of how far I’ve come, but that I can do this.
Art therapy provides an outlet to express emotion in a nonverbal way. For addicts, particularly those dealing with past trauma, this allows them to achieve insight and understanding without having to deal with the difficult process of putting their negative experiences into words.
There are many types of art and music therapy, meaning that there is an option out there for everyone. Different mediums and methods offer different benefits, and these factors should be considered when establishing the best art therapy for each individual.
According to addiction recovery experts, “Whether it’s watercolor, acrylic, or oils, painting is a wonderful way for those suffering from addiction to cope. Not only is painting a quiet, soothing activity, it allows an artist to bring out whatever emotions they’re dealing with onto the paper or canvas and leave it there. Because drugs and alcohol can dull a person’s emotions, painting can bring you back to yourself, little by little.”
Different methods suit different people. Some like to use vivid colors to express themselves, and will probably prefer the mixing and brushwork involved with oils and acrylics. Some may want to avoid color altogether, or prefer sketching, and lean towards graphite or pencil.
Sculpture is a great alternative way to express emotion through art, and may be better suited for people who prefer working in three dimensions. It can also be beneficial for patients that are stressed or agitated, as recovering addicts often are, because the tactile sensation of modeling the clay can be soothing in itself.
While art therapy is mainly focused on producing art, music therapy can incorporate listening and analyzing music as well as playing and creating it. Recovering addicts can write songs, play instruments, or simply share and discuss lyrics that are meaningful to them.
Much like different art mediums work best for different people, the choice of music therapy will depend on the patient. For instance, studies have shown that drumming can be particularly useful for people who have suffered relapses in the past.
Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP) is a distinct field from music therapy, one which focuses on body movement combined with music as a form of healing and recovery. Like other forms of art therapy, DMP uses a creative process to encourage introspection and self-expression. However, the key difference is that it involves using the human body to achieve this.
In a study observing the impact of DMT on recovering addicts, the therapy was shown to provide a healthy outlet for expression as well as a way for addicts to feel in control of their bodies.
Incorporating Art Therapy Into Recovery
Art therapy is most effective when it is combined with traditional group or one-to-one counseling. In particular, it is a good way to “break up” intense therapy sessions, giving patients an opportunity to unwind with some silent thought and introspection. As such, it is best scheduled at the end of a session or day.
The benefits of art therapy may outlast the treatment process itself. Once people have learned to express and process their emotion through art, they can use this skill to better cope with difficulties they may encounter. With stress, anxiety, and negative emotions being key triggers for relapse, art therapy provides recovering addicts with a healthy coping mechanism that they can use throughout their life. Finding an art therapist is nothing more than an Internet search away, however, make to check into the credentials. This search engine courtesy of the American Art Therapy Association is an excellent tool for finding a local art therapist.
Overall, art and music therapy are excellent tools to help recovering addicts face their issues in a safe environment. By encouraging free creative expression, emotions that cannot easily be verbalized can still be processed and discussed. Art therapy also provides healthy coping mechanisms that will follow addicts throughout life, and that will help them stay on the right path well beyond their last therapy session.
Michelle Peterson has been in recovery for several years. She started RecoveryPride.org to help eliminate the stigma placed on those who struggle with addiction. The site emphasizes that the journey to sobriety should not be one of shame but of pride and offers stories, victories, and other information to give hope and help to those in recovery.