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About Expressive Arts Therapies

Expressive arts therapies are a genre of therapies that use art-based interventions to help clients heal. The umbrella of expressive arts therapies includes music therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy, art therapy, poetry therapy, sandtray therapy, and play therapy.


These therapies have a history throughout the world, with play therapy going back as far as ancient Greece and becoming a field in the United States in the mid-20th century. Music therapy in the U.S.  started after WWI after wounded veterans with trauma experienced relief after musicians would visit military hospitals. Similarly, dance/movement therapy (DMT) emerged in the 1940s after it benefitted psychiatric patients, and art therapy developed in response to breakthroughs in psychodynamic theory in the middle of the 20th century. 

Each type of therapy is based on the same idea– that artistic or activity-based expression heals – but uses different methods to help clients. For example, art therapists use artistic media and the creative process to help kids develop social skills, deal with emotional conflict, and manage behavior. Sandtray therapists use nonverbal communication (via a sandbox and miniatures) to help their clients process psychological issues. And play therapists use play, toys, and games to facilitate communication or insight otherwise unable to be heard and recognized through normal dialogue. This helps the client process embodied trauma.

All expressive arts therapies use interventions that are tailored to the client, setting, and objectives of the therapy session to provide an integrative therapeutic approach. There are a number of different qualities of expressive arts therapies that make them so effective. For example, self-expression, active participation, imagination, and mind-body connections are used in unique ways to promote healing. 

Clients experience self-expression in the safe, non-judgmental atmosphere of expressive art therapy rooms. Expressive arts therapists don't try to interpret what their clients create but instead help them reach a new level of understanding about themselves. Expressive arts therapies require active participationThis makes the client more involved in the therapy process - and the act of creating helps with emotional stress and feeling a sense of control.

Imagination is the foundation of expressive arts therapies, helping clients problem-solve and reach solutions that they didn't know were possible. Expressive arts therapies also focus on the mind-body connection- how the mind influences the actions and reactions of the body - to repair healthy functioning.

Expressive arts therapies also affect the brain in powerful ways. Often, expressive arts therapy are indicated for trauma. Trauma affects the prefrontal cortex's ability to process emotions, and expressive arts therapies have the capacity to integrate sensory & cognitive elements of the brain. This makes them a treatment of choice for trauma clients. Expressive arts therapies such as play therapy also can change the way that the brain is structured & potentially rewire a developing brain during the "reconsolidation" window of time when the brain is open to change. This allows for re-experiencing of how the brain processes trauma experiences in a safe, regulated environment.

To sum it all up...

Expressive arts therapies actively use the senses to help clients heal - eliciting self-discovery through the client's imaginative use of art or play. There are a number of studies backing up the effectiveness of expressive arts therapies. For more information, see the references included below or check out two of Playmore & Prosper's blogs: "What Good Are the Arts? Expressive Arts Therapies and the Brain" & "Adult Coloring Books & Anxiety: A 'Scientific' Experiment."


Brach, H.S. (2004). “Freeze, Flight, Fight, Faint: Adaptationist Perspectives on the Acute Stress Response Spectrum.”

Chapman et al. (2001). “The Effectiveness of Art Therapy Interventions in Reducing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms in Pediatric Trauma Patients.”

Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). “Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation.”

Hong, R. & Mason, M. (2016). Becoming a Neurobiologically-Informed Play Therapist (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology).

Kestly, T. A. (2014). “The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Play: Brain-Building Interventions for Emotional Well-Being.”


Lusebrink & Hinz (2016). “The Expressive Therapies as a Framework in the Treatment of Trauma.”


Lyshak-Stelzer, F, Singer, P., St. John, P., and Chemtob, C. (2012). “Art Therapy for Adolescents with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: A Pilot Study.”

Malchiodi, Cathy. (2007). Expressive Therapies. 

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