My Introduction to “Expressive Arts Therapy”

Mindset-Amazon6x9-2014-BookAntiqua-ArtTherapyP47_cropThis post has been simmering for a long time… Heartfelt thanks to blogger Maria Holm of Health from One Heart to Another for encouraging me to write a post about my experience with this therapy, as a patient, and for her patience in finally getting this response. Maria was a public health care practitioner; she has a big heart for people, loves the arts, travel, and has many other interests too, as you’ll see from her blog.

I hope this post will encourage you to embrace creative activities as natural and essential to your daily life!

What is “Expressive Arts Therapy” anyway? By definition, all the arts are expressive, but what makes them “therapy”? As Wikipedia puts it (with my emphases),

“…the process of creation is emphasized rather than the final product.
Expressive therapy is predicated on the assumption that people can heal through use of imagination and the various forms of creative expression.”*

Four years ago, an enthusiastic young woman named Kimberley offered weekly sessions at our local cancer support organization. For her (who already had a Masters degree) it was a two-semester practicum during a 3-year program in Expressive Arts Therapy; for us, an eye-opening healing experience.

A small group of us women, bald from chemo but bold for life, looked forward to these afternoons, where there was always something new and fun going on! Kimberley exuded a loving, caring attitude. We soon trusted one another with our cancer situations, and bonded through our “artsy” adventures. Just having fun together would have seemed like therapy enough, a break from our treatment protocols. However, it always surprised us how these activities would cut through even our best-buried and barricaded fears and negative feelings, and guide us out to find our own healthy, healing ones.

How did she do it? In general, each session had a common structure. We would arrive, sit down quietly in a circle, and for about ten minutes, individually write or draw in our journals whatever we chose. Next, a basket was passed around into which everyone silently, symbolically, threw in any negative thoughts they needed to get off their chest.

A skillful facilitator, Kimberley then loosened up our chemo-tightened minds, senses, and bodies with a great variety of creative prompts, surprise choices each week. We enjoyed experimenting with various sound makers (shakers, folk instruments, drums, and more); listening to evocative spoken words (including poetry); making vocal sounds or actually singing to express a particular feeling; touching and describing textures of objects hidden in a bag; and doing random dance-like movements across the room, to different styles of music. Self-consciousness was banished! We talked about what we liked or didn’t like, and laughter always bubbled in.

Since our particular group gravitated toward visual art activities, she indulged us with large chunks of time for various mixed media, painting, collage, drawing, colouring, and crafts projects.

Who knew that the physicality of colouring would be so liberating? For example, in one simple activity, we each stood in front of a huge sheet of paper taped to the wall. First, as a physical warm-up, we stood with our backs to the paper, shut our eyes, and drew lines in the air using large, random, fluid arm movements. Then we turned around to face the paper, crayons in hand; again with shut eyes, we drew  lines onto the paper with similar fluid motions for perhaps a minute, maybe less. On the signal, we stopped, opened our eyes, and were amazed at the patterns we had made without looking.

Next, we had to colour in the scribbled spaces as we wished, then describe to the group what we felt and saw during our own “art process.” Some responses became metaphorical or symbolic, others just happy in the fun of fooling around with colour, and some deeply emotional (surprising even the artist). Kimberley always knew how to use our responses to help us gain non-judgmental insights into our own hearts.

It’s not surprising that stress-relieving adult colouring books are currently so popular, though I think making your own free-flowing designs would be even more effective.

Whatever art materials we used, I think it’s noteworthy that feelings of relaxation, peace, joy, strength, and hope were most often triggered by scenes and sounds of nature.

To keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ve described two more exercises that were particularly meaningful to me in separate posts: “Body Project” and “Cosmos Dancing.”

Expressive Arts Therapy offers such rich, diverse, and subjective experiences, that my description of a few sessions cannot do it justice. But if you or someone you know is struggling with physical or mental conditions, including trauma or disease, I would encourage you to find such help in your area, to supplement and bolster whatever other treatments you need. While I’m wary of providing internet links for health issues,  I think these two sites are helpful and credible, giving insights into how wide-ranging the applications are:  Art Therapy Blog and GoodTherapy.org.


  • “Expressive Arts Therapy” is a huge umbrella covering very many aspects of the arts! You’ll be amazed when you see this Wikipedia article overview of  “Expressive Therapy.”
  • What about everyday life for people in everyday situations? This article “Art does heal, scientists say…” that appeared in the British Telegraph should convince everyone to take regular doses of the arts as preventive medicine, along with their vitamins!
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16 thoughts on “My Introduction to “Expressive Arts Therapy”

  1. This is a great post and description of art therapy. It sounds like a wonderful group! I remember, with my group (I ran a support group for women with advanced stage cancer) I sometimes found that doing a shared group activity made opening up less threatening and comfortable. How are you feeling now?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this, Hildegard!
    Although I am no expert in the field of Art Therapy, I have been teaching Visual Art long enough to see (and feel!) the benefits of personal expression. For those of us who are just getting through the day – never mind undergoing a trauma or the healing process – creative art is of huge importance. What I tell my students is that this is one part of their lives where they are in total control of what they create; good, bad or indifferent. And Yes, the process is the whole point!
    Thanks for shining a light into this very important matter…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Edith, for reading, and commenting from your own experience in teaching art! I’ve never been an artist, (although I enjoyed a couple of courses in the past as a challenge), but now I find I’m turning to non-toxic water-based media more and more for fun and some deep satisfaction. Best wishes! 🙂 ❤

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  3. O Hildegard I am so honored that you have linked up to my blog in this important post. Thank you for the vivid description. I have never heard about it. Often group therapy is based on just talking. Creating and using art must be so much more effective. Maybe people allow themselves to be like children again and to experience the natural way of feeling life again which gives hope for lasting healing. I apologize for being so slow in reacting to your mail.

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    • Thank-you, Maria, first of all for encouraging me to write this in the first place, and for your positive response; there is absolutely no need for any apology. You are absolutely right in noting it feels like being children again, with the freedom to play and feel truly alive. That is at the heart of all creativity after all, as well as the heart of healing.

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  4. Reblogged this on Health from one Heart to another and commented:
    I was so glad to find this fine contribution to the important subject on how to deal with crisis, emotionally, physically or spiritually. In my first post https://mariaholm51.com/2016/02/05/difficult-questions-in-times-of-crisis/ on this I ask my blogger friends to write posts on this from their point of view.
    Hildegard has been through “Expressive Arts Therapy” and describes it in three posts. Thank you so much Hildegard for your inspirational post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tolstoy has a way with words 🙂 – excellent quote, thanks for bringing it to my attention! I’m going to check out your blog; thanks for visiting here and commenting. 🙂

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  5. I love reading your blogs. They are full of information and ways to find new healings. I too colour, and am loving it!! It is another outlet for me. Thank you for sharing. XO

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for this encouraging comment, Katrina! I am very glad that you find the information useful, and glad you’re enjoying colouring! It’s very cool. 🙂

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