Using Art Therapy to Help Treat Addiction

Clinically Reviewed by Sarah Hogan, MA LPC

Sarah is a Licensed Professional Counselor with 13 years of experience in the behavioral health field as well as a certified provider of Cognitive Processing Therapy for Trauma. She has extensive experience in counseling and case management with local mental health authorities, emergency homeless shelters, leading high acuity response teams, and serving first responders/veterans.

Art therapy is a type of experiential therapy that incorporates painting, drawing, sculpting, coloring, and other creative mediums in a therapeutic setting to help clients move forward in their journey to recovery. Here is how our friends at the Butler Center for Research explain this type of therapy:

“Experiential therapy (including art therapy) involves a physical, hands-on activity or experience that provides interactive opportunities for clients to open up to their therapist. For those who have trouble expressing deep emotions or talking about painful times in their lives, this type of therapy can be a game-changer.”

According to Psychology Today, art therapy is particularly beneficial in treating substance use disorders as it helps clients understand how certain experiences have shaped their behaviors, what’s keeping them “stuck”, and provides a path forward.

Click here to read more about art therapy from Psychology Today.

When participants in an addiction treatment program can focus on an activity rather than the therapy itself, studies show that they’re more willing to let their guard down, express vulnerability, and process therapy with more authentic reactions and emotions.

Plum Creek Recovery Ranch’s clinically based treatment program incorporates art therapy with other evidence-based therapies. This includes cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and motivational interviewing to provide a well-rounded treatment experience that gives our clients the best chance for a lasting recovery.

What happens during an art therapy session?

An art therapy session is much more nuanced than what many people may have experienced in an arts and crafts class. In an addiction treatment setting, a specially trained art therapist helps clients use their imagination to create art as a way to express thoughts and feelings they might have difficulty processing during a traditional talk-therapy session. Clients learn how to “stay in the now” and process their feelings (positive and negative) without the use of alcohol or other drugs. They are safe to explore difficult thoughts and challenging emotions, make important connections between those thoughts and emotions, and develop healthier coping skills.

What are popular exercises used in therapy?

Because art therapy is experiential, projects are usually action-oriented, helping clients to create an experience. Themes often include powerlessness, humility, and blame. Those may sound difficult, but these themes are used to bring about authentic, genuine feelings of pride and happiness.

Below are three exercises used in an art therapy session:

1. In a Year from Now

In this exercise, clients are asked to imagine where they will be in a year if they make the changes that support recovery and create a self-portrait that reflects that. They’re then asked to perform this same exercise again, only this time, imagining where they will be in one year if nothing changes. This allows the client to visually explore the reality of changing versus the consequences of continuing down the same path.

2. The Cost-Benefits Collage

Clients create a collage that explores the costs and benefits of staying the same, as well as the costs and benefits of making changes in their lives.

This exercise is based on the strategies found in the ‘Stages of Change’ literature. It helps the client acknowledge and the therapist evaluate the client’s readiness for change. It also lets the client freely explore the possibility of not changing — giving them a safe space to consider that as an option.

This exercise can help clients identify their attraction to their particular drug of abuse and express their fears of letting go of drugs and alcohol. During this exercise, clients often start an honest conversation with the art therapist on their feelings about changing versus staying in their addiction. This exercise has the added benefit of supporting relapse prevention because talking openly about problems provides clients with an opportunity to identify problem-solving tools that help manage cravings and prevent a relapse.

3. Barriers to Recovery

Here, clients are asked to create a picture that illustrates all the barriers that are in their way of making the changes necessary for recovery. This exercise is also based on the ‘Stages of Change’ model, which is part of the evidence-based motivational interviewing treatment modality. This exercise might sound similar to the Cost-Benefits Collage. However, the Barriers to Recovery exercise helps clients move from the contemplation stage into the preparation stage.

Read more about the ‘Stages of Change’ here.

Interested in learning more about addiction treatment?

If you or someone you love is struggling with issues surrounding alcohol or substance use issues, we’re here to help. Plum Creek Recovery Ranch offers comprehensive treatment options, including art therapy, facilitated by our caring team of masters-level clinicians. Click here to contact one of our caring Admissions Counselors for a free and anonymous assessment.

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