Art therapy can be an extremely effective technique in helping people to identify and resolve feelings that they find difficult to articulate with words alone.

We spoke to the Addiction Treatment Programme team at Priory Hospital Chelmsford to find out how they use art therapy in conjunction with other elements of their programme to help people as they start their recovery journey.

Why is art therapy effective in addiction treatment?

When a person is undergoing an addiction treatment programme, they spend a lot of time thinking back over their life. Art therapy can be a tool that they use during this exploration, and through looking, making, thinking and sharing in this way - which they are likely unused to doing - people have the opportunity to broaden their perspectives of themselves and others.

They are able to create physical expressions and visual creations of emotions and experiences, which can help them to realise aspects of themselves. For example, using boxes as a base on which they can draw, collage or paint can help people to realise and represent their inner and outer selves.

Thinking about textures and how materials behave are also important in helping patients connect to their own and others’ thoughts, feelings and experiences. How materials are used can be discussed in relation to addiction and emotions e.g. if materials are used excessively or restrictively.

Using 3D modelling materials can then help people to recognise and safely practise ways they need to reform and reshape themselves and aspects of their life in recovery, as they physically experiment with form and shape with the materials.

Jeff Van Reenen, Addiction Treatment Programme Manager at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, said: “We use art therapy on our treatment programme to enhance the healing process. It offers our patients new ways to understand and cope with their addiction beyond conventional methods such as talking therapies. Benefits can include reducing stress, resolving conflicts, developing interpersonal skills and managing difficult behaviours.”

Dealing with emotions in early recovery

Art therapy can help people to manage the emotions that they are experiencing as they go through the programme.

The sessions can promote a calm and relaxed atmosphere, which allows for individual reflection and thoughtful group discussions in a comfortable and safe space. For example, when using clay or other 3D modelling materials, the rolling rhythmic actions can calm people physically and emotionally. The modelling materials can also help to release any pent up anger, frustration or anxiety in a safe way.

Art therapy sessions can also help people to visualise how they feel - or want to feel - in the moment. For example, if a person chooses to use loose ink or paint, this could be a sign that they feel uncontained, or that they feel relaxed and liberated.

How is art therapy perceived by people in addiction treatment and recovery?

For some people in treatment, the idea of taking part in art therapy can lead to nervousness or apprehension. They can be worried that their lack of experience or skills will stop them from being able to get anything useful from the sessions. Others can be curious and open to using art therapy as part of their recovery.

For those who are uncertain, these fears are often dispelled when they are first introduced to the therapy sessions. They realise that they won’t be judged on their skills as instead, the aim of the sessions is to focus on the self, rather than artistic ability. When a range of materials are offered, including newspaper and magazine images and text to allow for collage, this can also make the sessions less threatening for those who lack confidence in their art skills.

They come to understand that being creative can lead to creative thinking and enable them to gain a new perspective of themselves and those surrounding them.