Art Therapy

This month freelance writer Helen Starr comments on the the impact of Visual Arts as a healer in addiction recovery.

The use of illegal drugs are a growing problem in the UK, with one in three adults (15 million people) having taken drugs and with numbers increasing over time. When the Observer last conducted an inquiry into drug usage, they found that 27% had taken illegal drugs, and that number currently stands at 31%. Approximately 750,000 people in the UK take drugs on a daily basis. Statistics have shown that although addiction is a complex disease, it is treatable.

Although the amount of recovery time needed varies, research shows that most addicted people need at least three months of treatment to significantly reduce or quit their drug usage. Treatment usually involves a blend of behavioural therapies (involving individual, family and/or group counselling), and in some cases, medication (methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone, for instance, are often used with patients who are addicted to heroin or other opioid drugs). It is vital that treatment be ongoing, and that it be personalised, since many addicts also have mental conditions/disorders/traumas which need to be addressed. Top rehabilitation centres across the UK are also relying on adjunct therapies, like yoga, meditation and art therapy, to aid with the healing process.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy can be defined as the use of art creation as a form of psychotherapy for those experiencing addiction or trauma, or those trying to deal with the day-to-day demands of living. Art is a healer on many levels. These are just a few ways in which it is used to help those seeking to break free of addiction:

* Art therapy vs stress and anxiety: Those taking part in rehabilitation programs for addiction are forced to face situations and emotions of extreme stress, both physical (during the withdrawal phase) and mental (as they struggle with issues they have suppressed through addiction, and as they come face to face with the consequences of past actions). Art therapy has been found to lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol, thereby enabling patients to reason more clearly and to evade the ‘flight or fight’ response evoked by situations of extreme stress. It does so in two ways: firstly, by distracting patients from worrisome thoughts, and secondly, by enabling them to enter a meditative state as their artwork begins to take shape and they see it through to its conclusion.

* Art therapy vs depression: Renowned author of Arts with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen, notes that art has positive effects on the mental states of those receiving this type of therapy, owing to its ability to help people identify and regulation emotions: ““Making and observing visual art seems to enhance or ability to elicit and even mediate our emotional responses.” Art therapy enables the creator to see many different solutions to one problem, to identify with something positive in their work and to activate different parts of the brain.

* Art and release: According to Jung, many people have a ‘shadow’, made up of blocked or repressed feelings that can be difficult to express with words. Art provides a new way to communicate, enabling those recovering from addiction to evade feelings of defensiveness and guilt, since every work is open to a myriad of interpretations. The therapist can guide the patient to identify emotions they may have suppressed, in a non-judgmental manner.

* Art therapy and ambiguity: When a person who is recovering from addiction decides to quit their drug or alcohol use, they should be allowed to express their ambivalent feelings about this decision. In an enlightening article entitled Moving Towards Gray: Art Therapy and Ambivalence in Substance Abuse Treatmentauthor, Brian J. Horay notes that in many centres for drug recovery, the 12-Step Programme is used to ‘break down’ a recovering addict’s resistance. He argues that an empathetic approach, in which an addict is encouraged to find authentic internal motivation to quit, is far more effective. Horay has used collage making to encourage recovering addicts to visualise the pros and cons of quitting drugs. This is far more realistic, he argues, than forcing addicts to take a black-and-white approach to a very complicated matter.

Finally, most keen artists will tell you that art can be a natural high… especially when one becomes lost in the moment of creation, similar to when an elite athlete enters in to that magical place called ‘the Zone’, seemingly outside the bounds of time and space. Art is unique in so many ways… in its ability to express and elicit the kind of emotion that is beyond the ability of language, and in the way it beckons us to face difficult experiences and feelings from our past and present.

By HELEN STARR on Drugs Misuse – England, 2013, accessed January, 2015., Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide, accessed January, 2015.

Art Therapy, The History of Art Therapy, accessed January, 2015.

Psycheandmuselibrary,, Psyche & Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul, accessed January, 2015., Visual Arts, accessed January, 2015.

Edinburgh Art Therapy Centre, Art Therapy improves the overall mental health and well-being of each individual, accessed January, 2015.