A Better Today

Expressive
Therapy

A Better Today Recovery Service’s Approach to Expressive Therapy for Drug & Alcohol Treatment

Expressive therapy uses creative expression as a means of coping and processing uncomfortable emotions and experiences. There are different creative arts that lend themselves to these therapeutic purposes, but visual arts, music and writing take the forefront. When we create an image, sound or symbol to represent an aspect of our feelings or experience, we create a distance from the difficulty of analyzing or trying to understand, and instead, we create something tangible out of those feelings.

Addiction partially hijacks an individual’s reason and logic, as it creates an intense new reward system in the brain. Because of this, the use and the “reward” of using that substance supersedes other values and priorities of the person. These individuals are conflicted, having irrational cravings for something that is harmful to them.

Often, when people have suffered from addiction, they can feel helpless and out of control. When we decide to create an artistic representation of our experience, something that we have control over, we take agency in those feelings and experiences.

The emotional realities of that experience are murky, complicated, perplexing, and frustrating to describe and understand. In fact, emotions, in general, can be frustrating to attempt to understand, because they are not logical in nature. Expressive therapy offers an intuitive method of expression, rather than logical.

Art can embody those feelings and give them a forum, outside of the self, to exist in. While logic happens on the left side of the brain, art activates on the right, which is the side in charge of expressing emotions. In this way, it helps to bring aspects of the psyche to the forefront of consciousness—like talk therapy aims to do—through a more innate expression of emotion.

ABTRS tries to reigniting our patient’s passion for life. Helping our patient’s get back in touch with the things they enjoy with expressive therapy is worth the effort.

How ABTRS Utilizes Expressive Therapy for Substance Abuse Treatment

At A Better Today Recovery Services, we find it important to incorporate expressive therapy into the curriculum. We offer therapeutic poetry sessions, music therapy and the occasional art therapy as well. Some individuals feel inclined to the creative arts and find it extremely helpful, while others are less enthusiastic. Of course, expressive therapy has something to offer anyone, but we want our patients to have choices.

Therapeutic poetry sessions are offered at the main treatment location, which is available to anyone who is in PHP, IOP or EIOP. Patients are given the option to sign up but are in no way required to participate. Music therapy is also offered, but only to patients who have made it to EIOP. Patients must earn the privilege to participate in music therapy, by completing coursework and showing progress in treatment.

Art therapy is a bit less consistent with our program but is still very much present. Occasionally, we will have an art therapist come in to do sessions. Many of our therapists, though, regularly implement art therapy techniques and exercises in their own sessions. In this way, art therapy is an active part of our curriculum here.

Case Studies Showing the Therapeutic Benefits of Expressive Therapy

There is much scholarly and clinical research on expressive therapy’s benefits and effectiveness, in a broad sense and specified via genre. Music, poetry and visual art all have unique attributes and therapeutic benefits.

Poetry is an introspective activity; “The process faces one with oneself” (Bolton, 118). It offers a security that speech does not, as—during the writing process—there is only the writer and paper. The hand seems to articulate things that the mouth feels incapable of, so the writer accesses and considers thoughts and feelings that were unavailable before.

Aligned with Meaning Reconstruction Theory, the writing of poetry generates new meanings about trauma; “it organizes and reestablishes the existential chaos within” (Barak, 938-9). Poetic expression allows a writer to embody complex or uncomfortable emotions with abstract concepts and images.

Poetry, being a use of language (which is logical, left brain) and art (which is expressive, right brain) simultaneously grants access to a new space where these difficult feelings are embodied and validated.

Visual art also allows for symbolic representations of feelings. Music does the same, but in a way that is less specified and reflective. There is much reason to believe that music therapy helps to treat PTSD, especially in alleviating the symptoms of intrusion and negative cognition.

Music therapy, particularly singing, “engages the person, physically, emotionally and neurologically” (Sullivan, 33). Music can increase circulation and lung performance, encourage patients to express themselves more fully, normalize behavior, relax and empower patients to be autonomous.

“In the creative process, fear and shame fade away and we reconnect with our [true] Selves and each other,” bringing us closer to a Higher Power (Johnson, 301). The creative modes supply an “aesthetic distance” needed to express the shameful and complex inner conflicts of addiction so that transformation can happen (307).

individualized-treatment-ABT-music-therapy

About Art Therapy at A Better Today Recovery Services

Art therapy varies enormously, but there are two key differences in approaches: abstract versus direct. An abstract exercise is less directive and provides an open space for patients to project their own free creativity and design. For example, patients might be supplied with paper, paint and pencils, and told to make anything they feel compelled to. After the creations are complete, the group might work together to analyze them, assigning meaning to the symbols, textures and formations that appear.

A direct approach is more specific than this; patients might be instructed to decorate masks that represent the oppression of their addiction. Another exercise could be to draw themselves as trees with the roots labeled as personal strengths and the leaves as characteristics that they are trying to change.

At A Better Today Recovery Services, our therapists often include direct approach exercises like these in their sessions. We find artistic expression to supplement the primary therapy models of our programs, helping patients to express and reflect. Occasionally, we will bring in an art therapy specialist to do a handful of sessions that might exhibit more of an abstract approach, focusing more intensely on raw creativity. Whatever the approach, art therapy has been shown to help many of our patients.

About Music Therapy Sessions at ABTRS

Music therapy sessions at A Better Today Recovery Services are offered to patients who have reached EIOP status. Individual patients have unique needs and requirements, which is why only individuals who have shown a certain degree of progress in treatment may attend music therapy.

There are four main elements of music therapy: receptive, improvisation, recreation and composition. In a receptive exercise, patients listen to music and respond to it, discussing its different elements or how it makes them feel. This offers a new lens through which the self can be examined.

Improvisation focuses on creative expression in the moment using instruments or voices to create music on the spot. Improvisation can redirect negative emotions; the exercises are cathartic and help to release tension and energy.

Recreation is when patients perform existing songs, by either singing or using instruments. Community Sings is an example of this, where well-known songs are sung by a group of people together. Recreation-style music therapy fosters confidence, achievement and social connectedness.

Composition is the writing of new music, which generates a sense of achievement. It creates a physical representation of the expression and of the feelings and experiences that inspired it.

Find Your Passion For Life in Rehab

About Therapeutic Poetry Sessions at ABTRS

Therapeutic poetry sessions are offered as a general treatment option to patients at ABTRS. These sessions focus on three kinds of exercises involving poetry: writing, reading and ritual— equipping patients with an accessible tool that has been proven as an extremely effective therapeutic practice.

Patients read poems that have been intentionally selected for this purpose and analyze these writings in a discussion, as scaffolded by the instructor. Symbols and metaphors are identified and deconstructed, while figurative language and imagery are closely examined for deeper meaning. Through this thoughtful practice, these essential poetic elements are introduced and explained.

Patients participate in various writing exercises, some of which are developed into finished poems. The writing is an act of catharsis, not only relieving stress and tension, but it also incites the patient to process and reflect. Patients may share their writing with the rest of the group, which emboldens their self-expression and confidence.

Writing creates a tangible embodiment of feelings that is symbolic of the release of those frustrations. In lieu of this, the ritual aspect further acts upon this symbol. Perhaps the poem is ripped up or burnt ceremoniously—this empowers patients as a demonstration of agency in their pain and in their recovery.

Patient Feedback About ABTRS’s Expressive Therapy Poetry Sessions

“This makes me use a different part of my mind. It makes me feel like a person again, instead of just someone who is sick.” – Anonymous

“I’m actually starting to feel good about myself for once and YOU are a big influence on that! I really enjoyed the nine weeks I spent in your session. I stopped writing for years before I came to Arizona and you really helped me spark creativity in my brain once again, and I can never repay you for that.” – Anonymous

“This session is the only thing I look forward to every week. Writing has helped me through a lot of darkness and sometimes it is the only thing that has kept me alive.” – Anonymous

Barak, Adi, and Ronit Leichtentritt. “Creative Writing after Traumatic Loss: Towards a Generative Writing Approach.” British Journal of Social Work, vol. 47, 2017, pp. 936-954.

Bolton, Gillie. “‘Every Poem Breaks a Silence That Had to Be Overcome’: The Therapeutic Power of Poetry Writing.” Feminist Review, no. 62, 1999, pp. 118-133.

Landis-Shack, Nora, et al. “Music Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress in Adults: A Theoretical Review.” Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 2017, pp. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 2017

Johnson, Lynn. “Creative Therapies in the Treatment of Addictions: the Art of Transforming Shame.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 17, 1990, pp. 299-308.

Sullivan, Janet. “The Therapeutic Community Sing: Music Therapy Inpatient Group Process.” Group, vol. 27, no. 1, 2003, pp. 31-39.

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