5 Ways Expressive Arts Heal Unexpressed Pain

 “Art can permeate the very deepest part of us, where no words exist.” 
― Eileen Miller, The Girl Who Spoke with Pictures: Autism Through Art

5 Ways Expressive Arts Heal Unexpressed Pain

Expressive art therapy combines creativity with psychotherapy. It feels fun, yet is a deep form of healing for people who can’t put their emotional pain into the spoken word. Creative methods help people process post traumatic stress, grief, and terminal or chronic medical conditions. It can help anyone decrease depression and anxiety. Expressive art therapy is most effective when the client has an interest in creativity and you work with a licensed psychotherapist, who has knowledge of expressive art therapy techniques.

What is expressive art?

Expressive art is any type of creative activity (painting, writing, singing, dancing) in which you experience a decrease in symptoms, such as anxiety or depression. Its purpose is to shift emotions, in order to process them. Unlike traditional art, expressive art it is not about making a pretty picture. Although, you can end up with a beautiful piece of art in the end. Here your focus is on the process, not the finished product.

5 Ways Expressive Arts Heal Unexpressed Pain

Art holds a space for transformation to take place. You are in control of how much you express and when. If the process feels too overwhelming, put the art aside. Together, with your therapist, you decide when to re-enter the work. The page, paper or room where art is created, holds the space for you without judgment, as a therapist does in any talk psychotherapy session. This safe place for healing, allows you to open up, connect, and accept the pain inside. When you allow yourself the space and freedom to express creatively, healing takes place no matter what type of art modality you choose.

Relaxes and opens you to new possibilities. Play is important for everyone, not just young kids. Expressive art gives you a chance to have fun and let go. Think back to a time, when you were caught up in the moment of creation. You experienced a sense of timelessness or an expanded sense of time. Afterwards, many of you asked, “Where did the time go?” You returned to this moment, renewed and refreshed. This type of surrendering to spirit is when the most healing happens.

Helps you process terminal and chronic illnesses. It is difficult to connect with emotions when you are in physical pain. No matter how ill you are, you have the power of your imagination. It is common to experience anxiety and depression with any form of illness, including chronic pain. “The Expressive Arts, including painting, sculpture, music, dance, and literature, can bring joy, pleasure, and laughter to patients and staff in medical settings, qualities often in short supply. Making art or hearing music reminds us that no matter how ill or busy we are, we can always tap into the magic of our imagination. This frees patients from being just “the cancer patient in bed 4,” passive with no power, to the person who has cancer who still also has an imagination, a creative spark. This spark can be utilized to tell her story, imagine her healing, aid in her recovery” (Heath, 2005).

Heals Trauma. After a tragic event, people feel overwhelmed. Their nervous system reacts in one of three ways; fight, flight or freeze mode, releasing various stress hormones. When these chemicals don’t reset after a trauma, it changes the actual physical structures in the brain. The good news is with treatment these structures can be restored. Creative arts helps clients who have adversity, process these unspeakable experiences and organize them within the brain. Art helps contain these emotions and break them down into mentally digestible pieces. People find healing by telling their story in a different way, which reduces trauma symptoms.

Contains the Devastation of Grief and Loss. Often after a death, it is difficult to put your experience into words. Art gives you a safe place to express all of your feelings after a loss; whether it is anger, sadness, bargaining, depression, or acceptance. This process is also helpful when facing denial, as it helps you take in a small portion of the pain to work through at a time. There is no judgement with art; no one tells you to get over your loss or move on. Often through art, one not only heals but also finds a way to keep their loved one’s memory alive.

Reference: Creating Connections between Nursing Care and the Creative Arts Therapies: Expanding the Concept of Holistic Care by Carole-Lynne Le Navenec, Laurel Bridges (2005)   Chapter 7 The Spark of Creativity: Expressive Arts in a Hospital Setting by Wende Heath. 

Lisa Hutchison LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist with over fifteen years experience in counseling and nine years of experience using expressive art techniques. She specializes in working with professionals who often get drained from their helping efforts, giving them the tools and support to recharge and rejuvenate their energies. Get her free gift here a 10 page E-book: 8 Simple Things That Release Chaos from Your Life Now!  

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22 thoughts on “5 Ways Expressive Arts Heal Unexpressed Pain

  1. Appreciating the first concept, “Art holds a space for transformation to take place. You are in control of how much you express and when. If the process feels too overwhelming, put the art aside.” It’s perfect timing as I’m designing a half-day retreat for my writing sisters this weekend…you’ve reminded me to be sure to add art and spaces to PLAY!

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  2. I love the concept of moving energy through the body in multiple ways. Sometimes words are not enough and meditation is not enough. Sometimes we need to move the energy in other ways. I love dancing and painting and writing and singing. I also love baking and making beautiful things in the kitchen. Even things like cleaning, when done symbolically and with intention, can feel very powerful for me! Thanks for the article!

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    • Me too, Ana and it truly is my pleasure to share what I have learned through my practice with others. What does not get expressed gets repressed and comes out as illness or pain. I have found creativity to be a wonderful tool to connect with the innermost reaches of our emotions. I love how you have a variety of tools/creative activities to choose from. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

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  3. I love this post. As I’ve eased back online after most wonderful holidays, I’ve been bombarded with posts about “intention,” “goals,” and “the word of the year.” And, while I’m happy for folks who have chosen these guides, it makes me feel like a bit of an outcast. Assessing direction for the new year is kind of a long process for me as it involves making art. It’s my personal form of intuitive goal setting so thanks for the validation! (And Happy New Year.)

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    • Thanks Andrea! I always follow my intuition with postings and felt this was the best one for January. Usually, my postings are different from other people’s 😉 I am happy to hear this validates your intuitive goal setting. Happy 2019!!

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  4. I’m with you 100% on the value of creative arts to express unhealed pain, Lisa. I kept a journal on the advice of a friend to help me cope with my grief after my father’s demise. I was in a different country and didn’t feel like talking but was experiencing tremendous grief. It kept me functional at work and helped me through the 5 stages of grief. Thank you for your post.

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    • It is my pleasure to share my personal and professional knowledge in my blogs. Thanks Vatsala. I also utilized creative arts ( writing, art, music, etc.) after my Mom’s and pet’s death. It was very helpful to process what I could not put into words yet.

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  5. Excellent post and healing in itself Lisa. Not sure if cooking fits, but to me it is an expressive art. When I cook it is a very Zen activity that relaxes my mind and body. It’s like second nature to me – very comforting. The energy flows from myself into the meal. Photography does this for me as well, and art takes me deep into places and spaces that remind me of past lives in Europe. Happy New Year!!

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    • Thanks Debra! Yes, cooking is the culinary arts. I remember after my Mom’s stroke when she was alive, cooking helped me because I could follow a recipe and create something new. I do believe our personal energy flows into all we do, including our creativity. Happy 2019!!

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  6. This article warms my heart on so many levels, Lisa. It was art therapy that helped me to express what I could not verbally after the passing of my oldest son. A dear friend and I met several time to paint. Our conversations were deep, the paintings more intense and time seemed to be suspended. Taking a ceramics class was another art that helped me express the wordless emotions. I would like to learn more about how art helps those of us going through traumatic events so I can help other heal. Many blessings, and thank you for this very insightful article.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience Cindy. There are many articles online about art therapy and grief, you can find. Lots of people call themselves or the classes they teach “art therapy.” To have a true art therapy experience, make sure the teacher, leader or therapist has at least a Master’s degree with counseling and art experience. I have all the requirements to teach expressive art techniques. Plus, I led expressive art therapy groups for four years in a partial hospitalization program. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out! Blessings, Lisa

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  7. Thanks for publishing another insightful article. You show strength and compassion for writing.
    . You speak from your heart – we all need this especially in these times..
    Keep these articles coming. I look forward to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks, Lisa! I know that my ability to express myself in many different artistic modalities is what has saved my life! Many blessings to you, friend. I hope that you are well and that the New Year has come in with good, positive energy. ❤

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  9. I needed to read this today. Recently, my art (my blog) was critisized by a friends who dubbed my outlet “a pool of negativity.” Today I returned to blogging for the first time since processing that conversation. That, coupled with being reminded by this piece why I truly write in the first place; was a true relief. Thank you for posting.

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