Addiction Recovery and Art

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What is Art Therapy for Addiction?

Art therapy for addiction recovery is a treatment that uses the power of art to help an addict express and explore their emotions and feelings, in a safe and non-judgmental setting.

The American Art Therapy Association explains, “…When people are struggling, facing a challenge, or even a health crisis - their own words or language fails them.” For those suffering from addiction, sometimes things can be so painful and complicated, with a mix of emotions all present simultaneously, that it can be challenging for an individual to articulate what they are feeling effectively. This is compounded by the fact that addicts often feel alienated both from the world at large and from their very selves. Art therapy for addiction can help individuals “express themselves in ways beyond words or language,” allowing them to use non-verbal, imaginative, and creative exercises to communicate their thoughts and feelings. A person might, for example, not be able to explain what grief feels like, but they might be able to portray it on a canvas. The art thus acts as both a stimulus and medium, enabling expression to take place that would otherwise remain impossible.

Art therapy is often considered a complementary and alternative medical (CAM) practice. This means that it is not a standalone treatment for addiction and should be used alongside other therapeutic approaches, such as CBT or a 12-step program.


Art Therapy Methods

In the research paper The First Step Series: Art therapy for early substance abuse treatment, the authors delineate five art activities that art therapists can undertake with those overcoming addiction, which have the following names and instructions:

  • The Crisis Directive - “Draw about an incident that occurred during the time you were drinking/drugging.” This helps a client to be more mindful and self-introspective of how their past behaviors and the situations they found themselves in have brought them to the circumstances they are presently in.
  • The Recovery Bridge Drawing - “Complete a bridge depicting where you have been, where you are now, and where you want to be in relation to your recovery.” - Through a storytelling exercise, this helps a client portray any possible worries and concerns about the recovery journey, such as relapsing, for example.
  • The CostsBenefits Collage - “Make a collage exploring the costs and benefits of staying the same and the costs and benefits of changing.” - This permits the client to consider the possibility of not changing and address what it is in their heart of hearts that they really desire - continued use of drugs or a life free from reliance on them. It also allows the client to consider the choices available to an addict once they recover, such as getting married or starting a new job.
  • The Year from Now Directive - “Depict yourself as you imagine you will be in a year if you make the changes that support recovery” and “Depict yourself as you imagine you will be in a year if you do not make the changes.” - Similar to the previous task, this allows the addict to explore the idea of divergent futures and possible selves. They can see how substance abuse can interfere with their life goals by leading them to pursue a life of criminality or even meet a fatal end.
  • The Barriers to Recovery Directive - “Draw a picture that illustrates the barriers you see to making the changes necessary for recovery.” This allows an addict to consider how they can maintain a life of sobriety and the various hindrances that can prevent them from doing so.

Art Therapy Activities For Recovering Addicts

Other art projects can include drawing/painting emotions, stress painting (i.e., painting during times of anxiety and/or stress in order to relieve feelings of stress), and working with other types of media, such as clay. All of these art projects can either be done one-on-one with an art therapist or in a group setting. Other than following the directives, there are no guidelines about what a client can or cannot portray, nor a right or a wrong. In either setting, producing the artwork will be followed by a discussion where the client/s and therapist discuss together what the piece of art depicts and what can be learned from it in a completely non-judgemental way. It will also help reveal to the therapist the areas particularly difficult for the client where they may need additional work.

Symbolism and metaphor are also key components of the art therapy process. Researchers studying the impact of art therapy gave the example of one recovering alcoholic who, after taking part in art therapy sessions, was spurred to go and get all of his broken watches repaired. They explain that “the watch, as a significant symbol in this client’s artwork during the session, represented a change in both his willingness and capacity to move back into the rhythm of life.” Other examples of symbolism that individuals might explore are the contracts between heaven and hell, and black and white.

Benefits of Art Therapy for Addiction

Let’s look at some potential benefits of art therapy for addiction recovery:

  • Emotional Expression and Processing: Art therapy provides a nonverbal and creative outlet for individuals to express complex emotions, which can be difficult to articulate through words alone. This can be especially helpful for people in recovery who may have suppressed emotions due to their addiction. Bringing a level of order and structure to one’s internal world then allows their external world to become more ordered and structured in turn.
  • Stress Reduction: Engaging in artistic activities can reduce stress and promote relaxation. Many individuals turn to drugs as a way to cope with stress, so developing healthier coping mechanisms through art can be instrumental in preventing relapse.
  • Self-Exploration and Insight: Art therapy encourages introspection and self-exploration. Through the creative process, individuals may uncover underlying issues that contribute to their addiction. This self-awareness can be a key component of recovery.
  • Improved Self-Esteem: Successfully creating art can boost self-esteem and self-confidence. This sense of accomplishment can counteract the feelings of guilt and shame often associated with addiction. In contrast to the destructive behaviors of their addiction, art demonstrates to the individual that they can also build and create something beautiful.
  • Distraction and Focus: Engaging in art requires focus and concentration, which can help individuals shift their attention away from cravings or negative thoughts related to addiction.
  • Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Learning to channel emotions and stress into artistic expression provides a healthier coping mechanism than turning to drugs. These coping skills can be applied outside of the art therapy sessions.
  • Social Interaction: Group art therapy sessions provide an opportunity for social interaction and a sense of belonging. Building positive connections with others in similar situations can be empowering, improve social skills, and foster a supportive community.
  • Mindfulness and Present-Moment Awareness: The creative process encourages individuals to be present in the moment, fostering mindfulness. This can help reduce anxiety about the future or regrets about the past, which are common triggers for relapse.
  • Empowerment and Agency: Art therapy allows individuals to make choices and take control over their creative process. This sense of agency can translate to other areas of life, allowing the individual to feel that they are behind the steering wheel in their life as opposed to a passive passenger who is being taken along for a ride. They will realize that they are not destined to live a certain way, doomed by fate, but the choice is in their hands as to what their future will look like.

Art therapy is conducted by trained and licensed art therapists, trained in art and psychological theory, who can tailor the approach to each person's needs and goals. If you or a loved one are going through addiction and think that art therapy could benefit you, don’t hesitate to contact Avenues Recovery, where we can talk you through the various options available to you.

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