So far I’ve written these articles from my “Life Coach” hat but today I am writing from my Expressive Arts Therapist hat instead. The creative arts have been used for centuries in healing processes whether to invoke blessings from the gods through dance and song, creating a work of art such as the AIDS quilt in response to a tragedy, music being played at a funeral, and so on.
Intuitively all humans recognize the ability of the arts to alter mood, spirit, and situations. How many of you have turned on your favorite song to help you bounce down the highway with a big grin on your face? Or turned to your saddest music, movie or book to help you cry and release the emotions of a tough situation you are going through? Theoretically, you just used the creative arts therapies on yourself!
But trained therapists who use the arts do so much more. For example, a Music Therapist is not just a sensitive soul with a guitar on their back. They are licensed clinicians who study for years to understand the clinical use of music with numerous populations to affect a huge variety of therapeutic goals from pain management, communication, socialization challenges, emotional release, speech, heart rate, etc. A Medical Music Therapist tends to work in a hospital or clinic setting and might use music therapy to help lower someone’s anxiety level and blood pressure in oncology, the ICU unit, or in the NICU helping babies and parents. Another might work with rhythm to help a person with a stroke or Parkinson’s or a TBI relearn how to walk as they train their gait to match rhythm. Another might help someone struggling with suicide ideation or an emotional trauma to be able to express their feelings and release those emotions in a safe and healthy way. And yet another might help someone with Autism work on communication challenges. There are endless possibilities!
Likewise, an Art, Drama, or Dance/Movement Therapist might help someone find healing and expression through their artistic tools. For example, typically trauma cannot be discussed verbally (at least immediately), but it occurred on a body and cellular level and in order to heal, one must find a way to release the incident, to get it out. Arts therapists have a great deal of training in psychology and can use their tools to help with such psychological healing and psychosocial goals, as well as with more the physical therapeutic goals. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably but typically a Creative Arts Therapist specializes in one modality (art, music, dance, drama, poetry, etc) and an Expressive Arts Therapist is one who moves fluidly between the artistic modalities rather than focusing on a single primary artistic tool.
Thanks to the advances in neuroscience and imaging techniques, we know a lot more about how and why these therapies are working. For example, neurologically, music lights up both hemispheres in the brain and often is the one thing that stays intact after a trauma. When someone cannot speak, they can somehow sing! Someone who stutters can often sing fluidly without a single pause. Someone with Alzheimer’s who cannot remember the names of their children can remember every word to their wedding song or the music of their childhood. Clinical research is proving these tools to be as (or sometimes more) effective as many other therapies out there. Part of the success lies in the embodiment, the body based actions, of some of the artistic therapies. Most of the time our trauma (physical or emotional) does not come from a place of logic. A car crash, a rape, a stroke, depression...these do not originate from rational thought nor do they only affect our cognitive state. These occur on a body level and hit our deep emotional core, our identity centers, our spirits. Thus, taking steps towards healing should include some type of embodied work. The arts are unique in their inclusiveness of motivation, creativity, and transcendental components. We often say that the arts disguise the therapy. Just look at how the adult coloring books have taken off all over the country! Coloring mindless pictures engages neurons in the brain and enables healing to occur while stress hormones abate and the calming “happy chemicals” have space to come forth all while a person is creating beautiful pictures and having fun.
Clearly, there are myriad uses for these therapies, too many to mention here, so I’ll close with just a few inspirational stories of success and healing. Carrie* came in with a vocal disorder, unable to speak above a whisper for three years. She had tried everything until she stumbled upon music therapy. First, her music therapist worked on breath control trying to determine how her lung capacity and breath timing related to her vocal chords. No luck there. Then they tried music therapy tools for relaxation, psychological issues such as anxiety. That wasn’t it. Then they began to work with the larynx and vocal chords directly through music therapy tools that incorporated massage and movement - voila! A sound emerged. Weeks later Carrie is starting to have some consistent sound and is steadily regaining her voice. She is now well on the road to recovery!
Josie* came to an Expressive Arts Therapist as a 13-year-old who self-harmed and had anxiety and depression. She did not want to talk but she did share the family issues and trauma that had occurred in her past, in a removed dissociated manner. Her therapist knew she liked theater so she found some monologues written for teenage characters dealing with trauma, expressing feelings, etc. For weeks they explored characters and did these dramatic monologues (interspersed with some funny ones too). One day the girl asked if she could write her own. Yes! In a beautiful, achingly poetic manner, she wrote her feelings and her own story and performed them as a monologue. Soon thereafter she began sharing music that meant something to her. Then dialogue opened further. She is now working on releasing her feelings and finding new coping tools beyond self-harm in order to create resiliency and heal.
Lastly, let's meet Bill* who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has trouble with gait, verbalization, breath control, and relaxation. Working with a Music Therapist and a Dance/Movement Therapist Bill has been able to gain some control over his tremors through rhythmic timing using his personal motivational music preference integrating the beat with his tremors and his natural gait. Through a few singing methods, his therapist has also been able to help him improve his volume level and thus it is now easier for Bill to be able to speak to his family and be understood.
The arts help us all. They help us feel, express, imagine, and make meaning of our lives. And through working with a trained practitioner, the Expressive Arts Therapies can provide a great deal of healing. To learn more you can go to each individual creative arts therapy association (Drama Therapy; Music Therapy; Dance/Movement Therapy; Art Therapy; Expressive Arts Therapy) and to see more stories or find a local practitioner you can also visit my organization: A Place to Be
* names have been changed to respect client/patient identities