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What is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

*The information in this blog is for educational and entertainment purposes only. Jasmine Eddy, AMFT is not establishing a therapeutic relationship with readers and this information is not a substitute for a relationship with a licensed psychotherapist*

Person playing a guitar. This serves as a visual representation of music therapy and expressive arts therapy.

Expressive arts therapy has been defined as “the use of art, music, dance/movement, drama, poetry/creative writing, play, and sandtray within the context of psychotherapy, counseling, rehabilitation, or health care” (Malchiodi, 2005). Essentially it’s a therapeutic approach that incorporates the creative process into one’s emotional healing experience.

How it’s used

There are endless ways to utilize expressive arts (EXA) in therapy. For the purpose of this article, I’ll outline just a few. An expressive arts therapy session can use a single arts modality, such as drawing, or take a multi-modal (intermodal) approach, which incorporates two or more art media (such as drawing and writing). Therapists and clients can determine how much of the work is done with the arts.

Some decide to use the creative process as a way to open or close the session. This can help people shift into the therapeutic space and mindset. Others will use the creative work as a focal point of the session and explore the client’s issues through the art exercise. The types of artistic media that you’d use in an EXA session depend on the therapist and the client. While therapists with extensive backgrounds in expressive arts therapy are trained to use a wide variety of art forms, it’s likely they specialize in or prefer specific modalities. Clients might have a couple of art forms that they are really drawn to or are resistant to try, so this can dictate the kinds of media used in a session.

A person holding a clapperboard. This serves as a visual representation of drama therapy and therapeutic filmmaking.

What sets EXA apart from other therapies?

Expressive arts therapy pioneer Cathy Malchiodi identifies four of the unique characteristics of EXA as a therapeutic approach. This type of therapy fosters “self-expression, active participation, imagination, and mind-body connections” (2005). The emphasis on self-expression supports clients in engaging with the healing work more deeply. In order to express something, you need to feel it. This is also true for the active participation component of expressive arts therapies. As clients create art or engage in creative processing, they’re engaging more of themselves into the experience which can provide them with more insight into their lives. They’re also directly engaged in the healing work, which can have powerful implications for their outcomes. The use of imagination in EXA can improve a client’s problem-solving skills, build self-confidence, and open the way for new possibilities for their life. Expressive arts in therapy facilitate engagement of the mind and body which supports clients in a more embodied experience which, in turn, can increase their self-awareness. This approach is both verbal and nonverbal. It can support clients as they process complex emotions and thoughts in multiple ways. Those who are reluctant or have difficulty engaging in talk therapy can participate in this type of therapy.

EXA is an extremely versatile therapeutic style. Therapists use it in their work with individuals, partners, families, and groups. It is used in private practice settings, hospitals, schools, and other settings. Some practitioners view expressive arts therapy as their main therapeutic approach. It’s the lens through which they view therapy. Others engage with it as a complement to another approach.

Two people playing at the beach. This serves as a visual representation of movement therapy.

How do I know if Expressive Arts Therapy is for me?

While the versatility of EXA can make it a good fit for so many people, there are a few situations that could make it a less effective or appealing option for some. Many people wonder if they’re “creative enough” for expressive arts therapy. It’s a common concern for those new to the idea of art therapy. “Being creative” or even “expressive” isn’t the goal with this therapy. It’s a tool to help you get to the core of your issues or concerns. However, if art-making and creative expression don’t sound like fun ways to spend your time, you might want to skip this approach. Other folks don’t like the sound of active participation in therapy. The expressive arts can be really activating for folks as it asks us to employ many aspects of our experience (mental, physical, spiritual). It can be very deep work and uncover strong emotions or sensations. If that doesn’t sound like more than what you’re looking for in your healing experience, EXA may not be the right fit for you.

Expressive arts therapy provides a unique experience for people to do their inner healing work. Therapists and clients can collaborate on how to leverage the creative process for the clients’ needs. If you’re looking for a healing experience that encourages creative self-expression and the mind-body connection, EXA could be an excellent approach for you.


International Expressive Arts Therapy Association

Malchiodi, C. A. (2005). History, Theory, and Practice. In Malchiodi, C. A. (Ed.), Expressive therapies. Guilford Press.

Would you like to try expressive arts therapy? Consider working with a licensed professional. If you’re a California resident, I’d be glad to work with you. Feel free to contact me for a free 20-minute consultation to see if we’re a good fit.

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