Expressive Arts Therapy (EXAT) is based on the philosophy of the Greek word called poeisis, meaning-making or shaping. Human beings often face problems in their day-to-day life because they do not come into an environment to which they are pre-adapted; rather they shape the world around them to fit their needs. This shaping can be creative or destructive. EXAT helps people find creative ways of shaping their surrounding environment in a manner that becomes a home for them, a place in which they can realize their potential.

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History of expressive arts therapy

Relatively new in its formation, the field of Expressive Arts Therapy (EXA) was founded in the early 1970s by Shaun McNiff, Paolo Knill and others at Lesley University Graduate School in Cambridge, MA. It emphasizes an interdisciplinary or “intermodal” approach to the use of the arts for healing, based on an established psychological framework. It was formed as a distinct practice alongside the modalities at the root of its creation, utilising all expressive modalities such as art, music, drama, and dance therapies. Though expressive arts therapists are not experts in all these areas (many have multiple proficiencies), they typically possess the sensitivity and ability to grasp the intermodal techniques.

Various conferences are now being held in various parts of the world, as everyone is beginning to realize the healing power of this form of therapy. EXAT emphasizes the experience of art-making as it contributes to the experience of the client in an effective way, focusing more on the process than the end result.

What is expressive arts therapy?

Expressive arts therapy is a multimodal approach to therapy that incorporates various art forms like writing, drama, dance, movement, painting, and/or music. They are based on the assumption that people can heal through various forms of creative expression by tapping of their imagination, and a thorough examination their body, feelings, emotions, and thought processes. Its main aim is to bridge the gap between the conscious and the unconscious self of an individual, which further allows them to heal their internal wounds.

The use of the expressive arts multiplies the avenues by which a person in therapy may seek meaning, clarity, and healing. The therapeutic impact of expressive arts therapy is mainly centred on four major areas:

  • Expression
  • Imagination
  • Active participation
  • Mind-body connection

Moreover, the focus being the process and not the outcome inspires clients to focus more on the expression itself rather than the end product.

Difference between expressive arts therapy and art therapy?

Modalities like art therapy, music therapy, poetry therapy, dance/movement therapy, and expressive arts therapy are all various kinds of creative arts therapy. A majority of these disciplines are based on a single art modality and are classified as a form of art therapy. On the other hand, expressive arts therapy integrates therapeutic tools and techniques from many different art forms to give it a new dimension.

The combination of a variety of arts-based therapeutic modalities creates a totally new approach, distinct from its individual components. Certified expressive arts therapists rely on their creativity and training to decide which modality should be utilized at a particular time. Expressive arts therapists may even employ techniques from a range of other modalities in a single therapy session as per the comfort and requirement of the client.

The combination of various art forms with traditional medicines to promote improved health makes this therapy an “integrative” one. The focus of the therapy is on the therapeutic effect of the creative experience asit highlights the human capacity of transforming thoughts, emotions, and experiences into tangible shapes and forms.

What kind of issues do expressive arts therapy deal with?

Studies have shown that music may help individuals experiencing a wide range of social, developmental, and behavioural issues grow in self-awareness and self-confidence and learn new skills and concepts. Though the empirical data about this comparatively newer form of this therapy is limited, a few pieces of research conducted in the field indicate that the EXAT has helped children to deal with the issues of anxiety, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour. It has also helped individuals with disordered eating habits to explore issues regarding body image, self-esteem, social isolation, and depression. Moreover, expressive arts therapy is also used as a treatment methodology for the following ailments-

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Eating disorders
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • High levels of stress
  • Anxiety
  • Relationship problems
  • Depression
  • Posttraumatic stress
  • Chronic medical illnesses
  • Social challenges

The EXAT acts as a comfort for a wide range of mental problems. As per the past experiments, it has been shown to help people cope with the distress of hospitalization as well as accelerated the healing process of the elderly taking interest in this form. The self-exploration through this therapy helps one realize their own potential and skills and this journey of self-expression opens the door to self-discovery and a stronger understanding of oneself.

What are the goals of expressive arts therapy?

Expressive arts therapy is a therapeutic means of dealing with emotional conflicts, fostering self-awareness, solving problems, reducing anxiety, aiding reality orientation, developing social skills, managing behaviour, and increasing self-esteem (American Art Therapy Association, 2004). This form of therapy focuses on the role of the unconscious mind to bring to the surface the emotions that have been suppressed for a long time. It nurtures deep personal growth and transformation in individuals.

The therapy is based on the philosophy of creative expression. It affirms that each modality is unique and tailored to the individual, so no one will not have to take part in activities that feel uncomfortable about, but rather use the art form in a manner that helps as a source to let out the internal feelings that keep one stressed.

Benefits of expressive arts therapy

According to the International ExpressiveExpressive art therapy can be used to help people of all different ages and genders, in groups or on an individual basis. Through the internal healing process, one develops a better relationship not only with their inner self but rather it also makes them more comfortable with their friends and family.

Arts Therapy Association (IEATA), this therapy involves integrating arts processes with psychology and community education to help people improve creativity, gain clarity, and achieve deep healing.

The use of the expressive arts augments the benefits of talk therapy by allowing people to use the strategies that work best for them. For some people, talking about their experiences may be their preferred form of self-exploration. However, other people benefit more from activities such as drawing a picture or writing in a journal as it provides them with an outlet for their subdued emotions. Following are a few pieces of evidence of its outstanding results-

  • A 2021 review of the research on the use of expressive art therapy in adult health and nursing care concluded that this approach helps to improve collaboration between patients, their families, and health care professionals.
  • A 2019 study found out that art therapy was linked to improvement in cognitive functioning in the elderly adults who had a mild neurocognitive disorder.
  • A 2016 review of a pilot study using expressive arts therapy with hospitalized children showed that the program was embraced by hospital staff and family members due to subjective reports that children went calmer and less stressed after therapy sessions. Other measures also suggested that the children experienced improvements in the mood.


The applications of Expressive Arts Therapy are often misunderstood as it is not just a remedy or fun play for the kids, but rather, it can be used to help various people from various walks of life. One limitation of this therapy however is that it still remains unclear whether the healing process through the therapy is due to the expressive arts or due to the expert talk therapy that goes alongside it.

The therapy, however, remains a creative manner to help in the healing process. One need not be an expert in the art forms a the focus is on his healing and he need not produce a masterpiece in the end. Thus, if you face any kind of mental stress that can be treated via this therapy, consult the experts. This therapy would enable you to discover a better version of yourself.