Art Therapy: An Effective Addiction Treatment Method

March 8, 2017
A teacher and student having a conversation

Today’s addiction rehab facilities not only offer individual and group therapy sessions, but a wide range of therapies that help residents heal with the support of dedicated mental health professionals and addiction specialists.

Art therapy, which is used in rehabs far and wide, has proven to be a highly effective method in the addiction and substance abuse recovery process.

How Art Therapy Helps Residents in Rehab

Art therapy plays a key role in addiction treatment in many rehab facilities. Extensive research demonstrates its ability to teach residents nonaddictive self-soothing techniques, improve affect regulation, increase positive self-image through self-expression, and promote healthy self-reflection.

In fact, the father of art therapy, Dr. Carl G. Jung, had a mental collapse in adulthood that was so severe he couldn’t work. While he was in the depths of his depression, he reflected upon his childhood and how he would play with toy soldiers and draw. He said it was the last time he truly felt happy. He then decided he was going to play with toys and draw again to feel better. In his autobiography, Jung expressed that these activities gave him the strength to work through his distress and solidified his belief that human beings have the capacity to heal themselves if they are given the correct tools.

When to Schedule It

From a programming perspective, art therapy helps optimize residential treatment scheduling, and can be an excellent end-of-day activity.

After a morning of psychoeducational and process groups that require residents to concentrate and be emotionally vulnerable, they often feel exhausted and struggle to stay engaged in sessions during the afternoon.

The parts of the brain that are activated by art therapy are different from the executive and cognitive functions used in morning groups. Our residents say that making art late in the day is soothing, relaxing, and fun. By activating the creative centers in the brain, art therapy has a calming effect and helps residents creatively process the events that occurred that day.

Types of Art Therapy

Art therapy groups work best when they’re led by professional art therapists. If one is not available, art teachers from local schools can be good alternatives. There are numerous types of art therapy that your professionals and/or art teachers can provide for your residents.

Graphic arts like drawing, painting, collaging, graphic journals, coloring, and scrapbooking are the easiest kinds of creative exercises to implement in a rehab setting. Invest in supplies like blank paper (a continuous roll of butcher block paper is best), pencils, pastels, water or acrylic paints, crayons, paint brushes, gel pens, glue sticks, scissors, sequins, magazines, feathers, and found objects.

Assignments can be directive or nondirective. A directive one, where you instruct residents to make creative representations of their “safe spaces,” encourages self-soothing and affect regulation. In a nondirective lesson, you can have residents collect a series of pictures, art supplies and shapes, and come up with something new without judgment.

A Popular Technique

One art therapy technique that has proven particularly helpful in promoting affect regulation as well as self-soothing is called mandala making. Essentially, the art therapist or teacher will talk for five minutes about how mandalas are representations of the cosmos, because “mandala” means “wholeness” or “cosmos” in Sanskrit. Everything, good and bad, is held together in a dynamic balance to maintain health and wholeness. Residents can then make their own mandalas from scratch or use color-in mandala designs. Hundreds of these pre-made designs can be found online. Residents will work for 30 or 40 minutes on producing their mandalas and then talk about their experiences afterwards.

How Residents Can Continue With Art Therapy Post-Rehab

Art therapy is all about replacing a negative coping technique with a positive one. After residents get out of rehab, they should be encouraged to continue art therapy as part of their daily aftercare plan. This is helpful for those who drank or used drugs at a certain time of day, like after work or on the weekends. They can also set aside time at night to create art as a way to calm down, or take an art class on the weekends.

By participating in art therapy, residents are centered and able to function more easily. It’s a healthy and uplifting way to stay focused on recovery, as well as feel some peace of mind.

Dr. George Cave is a psychotherapist who specializes in addiction treatment and the family dynamics involved in rehab. He works with patients at two non-12-step rehab centers in California, Malibu Hills Treatment Center and Prominence Treatment Center.

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