Substance abuse recovery is a very involved process that can be approached in many different ways. It requires those in recovery to make continuous efforts to understanding the origins of their addiction, their motivations for recovering, and any and all reasons they find themselves resistant to the recovery process or of recovering altogether.

This can be achieved through a variety of treatment modalities, including what is commonly referred to as “art therapy.” Art therapy has been taken more seriously in recent years as study after study speaks to its mental health benefits. Art therapy, particularly when combined with other treatment services such as detox, individual and family therapy, and support groups, is a powerful tool for supporting substance abuse recovery.

What is Art Therapy?

The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork” in order to:

  • explore their feelings
  • reconcile emotional conflicts
  • foster self-awareness
  • manage behavior and addictions
  • develop social skills
  • improve reality orientation
  • reduce anxiety
  • increase self-esteem

In other words, art therapy helps address social, emotional, and/or cognitive needs through creative activity and expression. Its ultimate goal is to enable people to return to or achieve health functioning.

Art therapy is thought to be effective in part because it allows the patient to work out their tensions and fears in a safe environment, at their own pace, and on their own terms. It provides a sense of control that many may feel they lack as they navigate their issues. When performed in a group setting, art therapy also has added social benefits, fostering trust and bonds among the members of the group.

Due to its versatility, art therapy is used to treat a variety of conditions including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, eating disorders, and addiction. It is practiced throughout in inpatient psychiatric units, medical facilities, schools, community mental health centers, residential recovery centers, and more.

Why Is Art Therapy Used to Treat Substance Abuse?

Art therapy has been used in substance abuse recovery treatment since the 1950s and has only strengthened in status since then. According to The Journal of Addictions Nursing, art therapy supports substance abuse recovery by:

  • decreasing client’s denial of addiction
  • increasing client’s motivation to change
  • providing a safe outlet for painful emotions
  • lessening the shame of addiction

Substance abuse recovery can often get intense, and art therapy provides a bit of relief from the more demanding work of talk therapy. It gives the patient space and permission to approach their problems not through direct talk but by subconscious expression. It makes for an appropriate complement to the 12-step program, which emphasizes self-reflection and explore feelings of guilt, unmanageability, or shame. These more abstract ideas — guilt, shame, denial, acceptance, etc. — can be made more tangible therefore easier to grasp through creative expression.

Art therapy is also effective in treating common co-occurring mental health disorders, such as PTSD and depression.

Mental Health Benefits of Art Therapy

Studies suggest that creative activities have the ability to boost our overall mental health. Creative activities can help:

Reduce anxiety

One study shows that spending just a little bit of time making art can reduce anxiety by a significant amount. Another study found that working on art helps people move their focus away from their conditions and open themselves up to more positive thoughts.

Boost mood

Creative activities motivates people to re-conceptualize and change their perspectives, putting them in the right frame of thought to transform their negative emotions. A study conducted on 3,500 knitters with depression found that 81 percent felt that knitting increased their happiness (7), and a study on working with clay indicated that it was effective in reducing negative moods.

Reduce the effects of trauma

Many of those struggling with addiction have trauma in their past. Art therapy is frequently used to help those who have experienced trauma of all kinds, including childhood abuse, sexual abuse, natural disasters, death, war, and violence. The Art Therapy Association reports that art therapy helps reduce the symptoms of PTSD by:

  • promoting emotional release
  • resolving painful emotions
  • externalizing traumatic memories
  • reducing behaviors that interfere with daily functioning
  • encouraging healthy, fulfilling behaviors
  • restoring self-esteem

Making Art Therapy a Part of Your Addiction Recovery

Art therapy can make a valuable addition to your substance abuse treatment plan. You do not need to have experience or “talent” to get started. All you need is an open mind and a willingness to give it a real chance. You may find it cathartic and healing, or just plain enjoyable. You may find that it helps occupy your mind when the cravings hit or express things you struggle to articulate in words. It may even prove so valuable that you make it a permanent part of your life, incorporating it into your day-to-day as both a hobby and an act of self-care.

Recovery can be intensive and overwhelming at times. Art therapy is a great way to give yourself a break while still being proactive and productive in your recovery. Ask your treatment team about art therapy, and in the meantime, come up with a few ideas for activities you may enjoy doing and give them a try at a home. You may be surprised at what it can do for you.


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