Effectiveness of Art Therapy for Substance Abuse and Addiction

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“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” Aristotle once very aptly phrased.

This sums up the perspective that art therapy aims to provide patients battling addiction. Despite limited research, several case studies have proven this treatment modality helpful for patients in resolving conflicts, minimizing stress, managing grief, enhancing wellbeing and effectively dealing with dysfunctional behavioral tendencies, attitudes and circumstances.

What is Art Therapy?

The use of art therapy, in the treatment of substance abuse disorders, originates back to the 1950s. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) particularly appreciates the role that art therapy potentially executed in recovery from addictions.

Belonging to the group of complementary and alternative medical practices, art therapy is recommended in addition to, rather than instead of, conventional treatment. [1]

Art therapy is a creative, therapeutic interaction between the therapist and the patient, involving art as a form of emotional and personal expression. The patient is provided a non-judgmental setting to facilitate a non-verbal, yet creative process of communication.

When implemented alongside an addiction treatment program, art therapy has been observed to improve mindfulness, develop a spiritual connection and minimize the sentiments of shame and anxiety, all along increasing the likelihood of long-term sobriety.

This therapeutic intervention involves a variety of activities such as drawing of an incident relevant to substance abuse, drawing/painting emotions, stress painting to relieve anxiety, maintaining an art journal and sculpting.

Most art therapy techniques for patients battling a substance abuse disorder engage a creative process, including not only the production of art, but also the interpretation of official works of art.

Specific art projects are often initiated by the therapist, designed to accommodate the patient’s needs; other times, art making is spontaneous. Regardless, the art therapist places “emphasis on empowering the participant to self-interpret their non-verbal expression, with the guidance of the art therapist.”

Unlike a common misconception, the art created is not for the purpose of a diagnosis. Rather, it is the experience of creating art and the ensuing growth of self-awareness, transformation, and emotional exploration that is of primary benefit. [2]

Art Therapy Beneficial for Substance Abuse Treatment

An overview of art therapy literature has highlighted a variety of relevant applications of art therapy in substance abuse treatment, over the past 30 years. Yet, there is a minimal amount of published quantitative studies discussing its effectiveness. There are only a handful of studies that explain the therapeutic rationale behind art therapy for substance abuse.

Man thinking of stopping substance abuseEven though there still exists a need for a thorough quantitative research to analyze the effectiveness of this treatment modality, developments in the field of art therapy for addictions show promise.

Art therapy has been observed to render several benefits for SUD patients, such as breaking through denial, reducing resistance to alcoholism treatment, providing an outlet for communication, and dealing with feelings of shame. It works well within structures of treatment relying heavily on participation and motivation of patients.

Art and music therapy can be used toward motivating patients to change and engage active mind-body interventions as it utilizes the same cognitive processes of valuing, choosing and deciding.

Research on art therapy has depicted it to be particularly useful when dealing with female patients who have experienced sexual assault or abuse, a common occurrence among women in addiction treatment. Art therapy is also believed to be an ideal tool for engaging adolescents, by encouraging their creativity and expression, making them more agreeable to treatment. [3]

The Link Between Art Therapy and the 12 Steps

Several scholars, over the years, have made significant associations between art therapy and the 12-step model, suggesting that this treatment model could potentially complement and enhance an already established model of treatment.

Research showed a positive and significant relationship between 12-step support groups being a component of treatment and the use of both art therapy and music therapy.

To explain further, past research advocates that art therapy can facilitate the First Step through a creative initiation that can melt resistance and facilitate acceptance of addiction as a primary concern.

Art therapy can also help shape a positive image of recovery, enabling lowered resistance to receiving treatment, essentially evoking the patient’s’ intrinsic motivation for change. Furthermore, treatment centers that provide art therapy are often rely upon a 12-step model.

Feen-Calligan developed art therapy based on the traditions of 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. By focusing her art therapy sessions on issues and concepts relevant to the 12-steps (such as helplessness, unmanageability, and connecting with a Higher Power), patients felt integrated with all aspects of their treatment.

Feen-Calligan reiterates art therapy to be an exceptionally powerful tool for relapse prevention, by “encouraging patients to visualize their relapse triggers or other barriers that might prohibit recovery, and in particular, how to recognize feelings as potential relapse triggers.”

She describes the experience of art therapy as meditative, inspiring, and evoking a spiritual connection. This integration of recovery, art, and spirituality shares qualities that enforce a supportive structure of treatment for addiction. [1]

Man climbing a mountainIn most cases, addiction isn’t merely a relentless want to abuse drugs or alcohol, but a smoke screen to cover an underlying psychological issue or past trauma. Art therapy is an effective way to unlock these buried emotions.

Our minds are freed to make associations and wander during the process of creation, and many times the patients themselves can decode the symbolism in each of their creation. Hence, art therapy isn’t just a way to process or express negative emotions, it allows the patient to imagine and aim for a life away from addiction.

Community Discussion

Do you feel a particular connection with art or music?

Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4268880/
[2] http://www.recovery.org/topics/art-music-therapy-addiction/
[3] https://arttherapy.org/aata-aboutus/

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on June 5, 2017.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 29, 2017
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.