What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Close up of man drawing with paints and pencils at home. Remote education, creative occupation, art therapy

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Expressive arts therapy is an integrative, multimodal approach that utilizes a variety of methods including writing, music, visual arts, drama, and dance to help people achieve personal growth. In this type of treatment, people work with a trained therapist who helps them explore and understand their reactions to their experience with different forms of expressive art. 

It has been defined as a process of self-discovery that relies on artistic self-expression as a way to achieve emotional release.

This type of therapy is characterized by a focus on the creative process itself, utilizing a wide range of materials, and exploring a number of different techniques as part of a therapeutic intervention.

People who are experiencing mental health problems may have a difficult time interpreting or describing how they are feeling. The use of expressive arts can help people learn more about themselves and share what they are feeling in a therapeutic context.

Types of Expressive Arts Therapy

As a multimodal therapy, expressive arts therapy draws on a few different types of single-modal approaches. Four of the main types of creative arts that are often used in expressive arts therapy include:

  • Art therapy: This approach involves utilizing the visual arts—such as drawing, painting, and sculpting—to work through emotions, thoughts, or experiences. 
  • Dance therapy: This type of therapy involves utilizing physical movement and dance to help people cope with mental health symptoms such as anxiety, stress, and depression.
  • Music therapy: This approach utilizes listening to or creating music to help improve mood and ease anxiety. 
  • Writing therapy: This approach involves exploring thoughts and emotions through writing. For example, people may write in a journal about their life or create expressive works such as poems or fictional stories. 

It is important to note that the types of expressive arts used above are examples of single therapeutic modalities when used on their own. Expressive arts therapy is different because it integrates many of these techniques and incorporates a variety of tools instead of being limited to a single approach.

According to the Expressive Arts Therapy program at Appalachian State University, it is the healing actions of the artistic experiences themselves that set expressive arts therapy apart from more traditional, uni-modal approaches.

By drawing on different modalities and integrating them in ways that are beneficial to each individual’s needs, this approach to treatment can create unique experiences that allow people to better understand their emotions, thoughts, memories, and experiences.


Therapists who practice expressive arts therapy may draw on a wide variety of techniques in order to create a treatment that is best suited to the individual's needs. Such techniques can include:

  • Painting or finger painting with acrylics or watercolor
  • Clay sculpting
  • Mask making
  • Dancing
  • Journal writing
  • Poem writing
  • Psychodrama
  • Songwriting
  • Listening to music
  • Role-playing
  • Improvisation
  • Sketching
  • Collage
  • Printmaking
  • Mosaic painting
  • Self-portraiture
  • Photography
  • Mandala coloring
  • Filmmaking

In addition to utilizing the healing properties of self-expression through expressive art, professionals also incorporate psychotherapeutic modalities including psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, and mindfulness-based approaches.

What Expressive Arts Therapy Can Help With

Expressive arts therapy may be beneficial for a number of different mental health conditions. It can be used with both adults and children. Some conditions or concerns it may help include:

This approach may also be useful when treating children who may not yet have the ability to describe what they are thinking or feeling.

Benefits of Expressive Arts Therapy

The use of the expressive arts can augment the benefits of talk therapy by allowing people to use the strategies that work best for them. For some people, talking about their experiences may be their preferred form of self-exploration. Other people, however, may benefit more from activities such as drawing a picture or writing in a journal. 

According to the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA), this involves integrating arts processes with psychology and community education to help people improve creativity, gain clarity, and achieve deep healing.

While the use of some types of expressive art may be limited for various reasons including physical disability, many art activities are suitable for a wide variety of individuals and in different settings. Such activities can often be employed in any setting with only minimal supplies. 

One review found that expressive arts therapy has been used in a wide range of contexts including community centers, with the homeless, with immigrants, with cancer patients, with patients in dementia care, and with patients in hospice care.  


Research suggests that the use of the expressive arts for therapeutic purposes offers several benefits. A few of these include developing strengths and skills, personal growth, symptom reduction, improved communication, and making meaning of personal experiences.

  • A 2021 review of the research on the use of expressive art therapy in adult health and nursing care concluded that this approach helped improve collaboration between patients, their families, and health care professionals.
  • A 2019 study found that art therapy was linked to improvement in cognitive functioning in elderly adults who had a mild neurocognitive disorder.
  • A 2016 review of a pilot study using expressive arts therapy with hospitalized children reported that the program was embraced by hospital staff and family members due to subjective reports that children were calmer and seemed less stressed after therapy sessions. Other measures also suggested that the children experienced improvements in mood.

More generally, art-making has been found to have several positive mental health effects.

  • One 2020 study found that a coloring activity helped reduce anxiety and improve mood in older adults.
  • Another study found that painting pictures and playing musical instruments helped improve the emotional well-being of older women.

Things to Consider

If you are thinking about trying art therapy, there are some important things you should consider. You don't have to have training or experience in any of these activities. You also don't have to be good at the art form you are focusing on during your sessions. The goal of this process is not what you are creating; it is the process of creating it that matters.

"One does not need to be an artist or have any special skills to express oneself through art-making; the most important thing is an open attitude to creativity in everyday life. This allows one to give oneself and others a chance to interact with and be touched by art and to vary the pattern of everyday life," suggested the authors of one review of research on the use of the expressive arts in therapy.

Expressive arts therapy isn’t right for everyone. For example, it might not be right for you if you are skeptical or unwilling to participate in the creative experience. It may also not be appropriate for some psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia.

It’s also important to be receptive and open to the creative experience. It isn’t the same thing as taking an art class. Your focus isn’t on learning artistic techniques, but on the inner emotional experience as you engage in the artistic process, either in a receptive (such as listening to music) or creative (such as making art) manner.

How to Get Started

If you are interested in trying expressive arts therapy:

  • First, find a therapist: Your first step is to find a professional with training and experience in the expressive arts. For example, you might ask your doctor to refer you to a professional in your area who practices this type of therapy or look for a therapist in your area using an online therapist directory.
  • Check with your insurance: You should also ask about payment options and check with your insurance provider to see if your policy will cover the treatment. This treatment is more likely to be covered by insurance if a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist provides it.
  • Know what to expect: During an expressive arts therapy session, your therapist may guide you through a process of exploring what you are feeling using some expressive art activity. For example, your therapist may have you work through various activities, or you might focus on specific forms of expression such as writing or dance. 
11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.