Art Therapy for Drug & Alcohol Addiction Recovery
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. David Hu, MD on 09/13/2022
Dr. Hu is a nationally licensed psychiatrist with 21 years of experience treating mental and behavioral health.
By: Zinnia Healing Editorial Staff | Edited By: Rebecca Hill
One of several options for addiction treatment, art therapy for drug and alcohol addiction recovery can provide a creative outlet for addicts to express their thoughts and emotions.
According to the group therapy guide produced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, art therapy is a type of expressive group therapy “that allows clients to express feelings and thoughts—conscious or unconscious—that they might have difficulty communicating with spoken words alone.” Zinnia Healing offers art therapy as one of its many therapy options because it is so useful for people on their road to recovery.
This guide also outlines the many benefits of expressive group therapy, such as “fostering social interaction among group members as they engage either together or independently in a creative activity… improving socialization and the development of creative interests.” In addition to socialization with like-minded creative individuals, by giving patients a new way to interpret their emotions, “expressive therapies can help clients explore their substance abuse, its origins, the effect it has had on their lives and new options for coping.”
Since producing artwork is a personal and non-verbal process, it can often expand the way someone understands their addiction. Especially for those with underlying mental health issues or a history of trauma, explaining the meaning behind a work of art may be a key factor in discovering insight and understanding. In addition, according to Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, “art therapy improves mood, and reduces pain and anxiety when offered at the bedside during acute hospital treatment.”
It is important to note that you do not need to consider yourself an “artist” or have any artistic training to enjoy the benefits of art therapy. The goal is to enjoy the process and promote self-expression, not produce a certain product.
What Is Art Therapy for Drug Addiction?
According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy is a useful tool for many people: “Art therapy, facilitated by a professional art therapist, effectively supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns. Art therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress and advance societal and ecological change.”
Whether or not an individual has an artistic talent or is even interested in the arts, art therapy for drug addiction can be extremely soothing and effective. Essentially, art therapy, under the supervision of a licensed art therapist, can help addicts seeking to recover from their addictions. It can be a calming yet effective therapy to help you move forward in your journey toward recovery.
Art therapy for drug and alcohol addiction recovery is an excellent tool to help individuals connect with their emotional challenges, explore their feelings, and reconcile emotional conflicts they have been suffering from. Many addicts suffer from emotional trauma, which is often the reason for their substance abuse.
Art therapy for drug and alcohol addiction recovery can reduce anxiety, build self-esteem, and give addicts a tool to release their emotions in a safe space without turning to destructive behavior. Patients can also learn to understand themselves better through examining their own art and engaging in meaningful dialogue with an art therapist about their work. These elements are crucial parts of the recovery process for addicts.
What Are the Benefits of Art Therapy for Drug Addiction?
There are numerous benefits to art therapy for drug and alcohol addiction recovery. Here is a closer look at some benefits art therapy can have on addicts during the recovery process:
- Alternative Communication: When sober, it can be overwhelming, humiliating, and anxiety-inducing to think back on past actions during a substance-induced state. This can be increasingly difficult to talk about with a counselor but communicating their feelings about their past behaviors is a crucial part of the recovery process. Art therapy gives patients the chance to communicate their thoughts without having to reach too far out of their comfort zone and talk about them openly. Perhaps the time to discuss it out loud will come, but art therapy can be the first step in improving communication.
- Developing Self-Worth: Art therapy for drug and alcohol addiction recovery is an important tool in building self-worth. Developing an increased sense of self-confidence is a critical part of recovering from substance abuse. This can be tricky to improve through traditional therapies. Art therapy can help individuals connect with themselves on a deeper level, visualize their pain and suffering, and see just how much potential they truly have hidden away. Breakthroughs in self-love are game-changing for recovering addicts.
- Self-Reflection: It can be tough to put what we think of ourselves into words. Sculpting or painting oneself throughout the recovery process allows the patient to see themselves as an outsider would. This can open the door to an even deeper understanding of oneself and the power to move forward. Self-reflection can be emotionally overwhelming, but it can also be rewarding.
- Emotional Healing: Healing is a hard task for addicts to achieve. However, once they develop enough self-worth and consider themselves worthy of forgiveness, emotional healing can begin. Art therapy for substance abuse addiction recovery allows people to express themselves in ways they never thought possible. This emotional journey may be filled with ups and downs, but it can bring an addict into sobriety by arming them with the one tool they need most: the ability to deal with their emotions.
The Three Goals of Art Therapy
Three pillars of art therapy come together to help patients recover from addiction. Here are the three goals of art therapy as it relates to substance abuse patients:
Identify the problem: The first goal of art therapy is to help patients understand their addiction. Through art therapy, they can explore the social, biological, environmental, and behavioral causes as well as the consequences of their substance abuse disorder. To manage the problem, patients must first understand it.
Develop new coping strategies: Art therapy for substance abuse addiction recovery serves as a new outlet for the patient to describe their feelings and connect with the outside world. Instead of turning to substance abuse, patients can turn to art to release their complicated emotions and frustrations in a healthy way.
Maintain sobriety: Art therapy also aims to provide patients with a continued outlet of communication to lean on to prevent relapse. By continually using art to maintain their emotional balance, relapse will become less and less likely over time.
What Does Art Therapy Look Like for Drug Addiction?
Clinical psychologist and mental health specialist Margarita Tartakovsky describes three standard techniques that are used in art therapy:
- Gestalt Approach: In this method, the artwork is used as a surface-level introduction before delving into deeper meanings. The therapist will help the person distinguish their feelings through the painting and use the artwork as a tool to describe emotions or thoughts that are hard to articulate out loud.
- Active Imagination Approach: In this technique, the individual will let their imagination wander and draw whatever comes to mind. This spontaneous free association might open the door to introspection or a new take on previous ideas.
- “Third-Hand” Approach: Acting as a “third hand,” in this approach, the therapist helps with the production of the actual painting. While the patient’s idea still dominates the drawing or painting, the therapist helps bring their vision to reality.
What Are Some Art Therapy Addiction Exercises?
If you or a loved one is looking to experiment with art as a therapy method, here are some places to start.
- Draw without thinking: While it may be hard to just pick up a pencil or paintbrush and just start drawing, try to draw whatever feels natural with no expectation for what the outcome should look like.
- Draw a painful scene: While certain memories may hurt too much to talk about, using a nonverbal technique like drawing or painting may help to process and release some of those negative emotions.
- Experiment with different mediums: Using your hands in art therapy, like with clay or even finger painting, can be a great way to connect physically with art and focus more on the process.
- Draw your ideal future: Visualizing your sober future can give you a concrete goal to strive toward. It can help to see what a healthy life would look like on paper.
- Work with a professional: A professional art therapist can help you process and channel your emotions from your creative work. They can also help facilitate the creative process and focus your artistic energy.
How Do I Know If Art Therapy Is for Me?
Art therapy with a licensed art therapist is not only reserved for those with artistic inclinations. Anyone and everyone can benefit from engaging in art therapy. Art therapy is proven to help people deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. It can help those suffering learn to manage their feelings and behaviors, relieve symptoms of stress, and even develop interpersonal skills.
The goal of art therapy isn’t to discover the next Pablo Picasso. The goal is to give the patient an outlet to express themselves in a new way—a simpler way. Art therapy can also improve cognitive function1 and enhance brain connectivity. Addiction is a disease that dramatically affects the brain and its functionality. Art therapy for substance abuse addiction recovery is an effective tool for rebalancing the brain and helping patients find their path to sobriety.
Mental illness and emotional traumas are often the culprits behind substance abuse disorders, and art therapy can be invaluable in managing those exact issues. Group art therapy can also be a helpful treatment option because it allows patients to connect with others like them. They can witness each other’s progress and grow together. Individual therapy is also an option.
What Do I Need to Start Art Therapy?
You don’t need special tools or a deep understanding of the arts to get started in an art therapy program for substance abuse disorders. To start art therapy and really have the program make a difference, patients need to be committed to getting clean and staying sober. This is a challenge in itself. Facing the possibility of life without drugs and alcohol can be scary, but it is the best way for you to move forward.
The patient must be ready and willing to try it. Whether the patient is ready to believe in themselves is not the main concern. That will come with time and further treatment. All that’s needed to take the first step is the willingness to lead a happier, healthier life.
Substance abuse disorders can be very difficult to struggle with, but there are ways you can achieve sobriety today and for the long run. Getting sober and staying sober begins with that very first step. Seeking treatment from experienced rehab and recovery professionals can increase your odds of kicking your old habits and preventing relapse in the future.
Does Art Therapy Really Work?
There are countless studies2 that have proven the efficacy of art therapy in relation to mental health and substance abuse disorders. There is definitive proof that art therapy can help people deal with many problems, including emotional distress, emotional trauma, mental disorders, and substance abuse disorders.
Art therapy helps patients better understand themselves, their strengths, and their weaknesses. In addition, art therapy alters connections in the brain, making it easier for patients to connect with their emotions and regulate them.
How Do I Get Started?
If you or a loved one are suffering from substance abuse disorder, know that you are not alone. As alone as you may feel, there are many people out there who are dealing with the exact same issues and are finding their path to healing every day. You can, too.
If you are considering art therapy, call us at Zinnia Healing and ask about our treatment plans. We can help you find the treatment strategies that work best for your individual needs and help you commence the recovery process. One day at a time, you can do this. We’re here to help: 855-430-9439