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Art Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Art Therapy can be a transformative practice. Individuals healing from addiction and substance abuse in residential addiction treatment at Cedars learn in all sorts of different ways. We do our best to provide many opportunities for self-discovery and a wide of variety of therapies to promote growth and change in all of our patients.

The SAMSHA definition of recovery is “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” With art therapy there are so many things we can do that speak to this definition.

The Neuroscience of Art Therapy

Addiction hijacks the brain. It affects the entire system, but specifically targets the limbic system which is like the “gas pedal” of the brain, and the prefrontal cortex which is considered the “break”. An individual active in their addiction has both the gas and brake hijacked – there is no off button! Someone who suffers from addiction or substance abuse will likely have also experienced some form of trauma. When the addictive brain is hijacked, this residual trauma can also become stuck in the same cycle.

Art Therapy is uniquely positioned to address the neuroscience of both addiction and trauma. It does this by an integrative process. It is a sensorimotor activity – engaging all of your senses and healing through them all. When we create art we are engaging our bodies and our sensations to exteriorize and process our emotions.

Take crayons for example. They have a smell that can be attached to memories of childhood. We can touch them and feel the texture. When we start using the material we are exteriorizing our emotions and internal experience. This integration of both hemispheres of the brain is very nourishing and helps to rewire the limbic system and prefrontal cortex.

When you ask someone who suffers from PTSD about their trauma they can often shut down. When trauma is recalled, words often become lost. This is largely because the area of the brain responsible for language, Broca’s area, “goes offline”. Art therapy can bypass language, and go directly to the right hemisphere where it is non-verbal. Accessing these parts of ourselves, can work to heal our brains, and help us recover from trauma.

Art Therapy & Recovery

Art Therapy has two branches of origin:

  1. Art in Therapy – Psychoanalysts use visual forms and drawing representations to help others.
  2. Art as Therapy – Artists working in community utilize the therapeutic value of creative expression.

At Cedars, we strive to find the balance of both the therapeutic process and practical skills. Whatever you create in an art therapy session belongs to you. You artwork is never interpreted here. It is about your experience, what it means to you, how it relates to your life, how the process you went through to create your art relates to your treatment process. Your art represents you – it has its own voice.

Recovery is about change and doing things differently. It is about stepping out of our comfort zone. In healing from addictions we are often asked to do things different and things we may not be initially comfortable or familiar with. “Trust the process”, “Make the plan but don’t plan the outcome” and “H.O.W.” are sayings often heard in 12 step fellowship and on the path of recovery. These statements also apply to the practice of Art Therapy.

Trust the process – You may be nervous or anxious about the prospect of making art. We encourage all individuals to trust the process – this mindset can give you the courage needed to compile positive experiences of change and will help with continued growth and healing in recovery. There is no need for an artistic background to do this work. Not having any previous art experience can be a great benefit! Art Therapy is all about play, experimentation and exploring. We often make a mess! It is about the process. Even if you think you hate art, we have transformed this in so many people. When people try art therapy with an open mind end up loving it for themselves not only as a process for healing but also to carry on to their recovery as a daily practice, and an opportunity to engage with their loved ones and children.

Make the plan but don’t plan the outcome. – It is a common experience for us as human beings to approach art therapy knowing what we want to make. Be willing to let this go, it is a journey! Just like life we don’t know where creativity will take us. As long as we are open to all of the forks in the road and where we might end up, it can be much easier for us to let go – rather than control, plan and predict the outcome.

 H.O.W. (Honesty, Openness and Willingness) – Art Therapy can also help us get out of our stinking thinking and be open to a different experience. Many patients come to art therapy on the recommendation of their counsellor. They may have never created art before, can feel terrified, angry, or resistant. After the session individuals typically experience a shift in perspective, are able to confront their resistance, and often have a transformative experience.

Mediums Use in Art Therapy at Cedars

Like the many forms of communication and learning modalities, we utilize an array of mediums in Art Therapy at Cedars. Materials such as oil, crayons, painting, mixed media, craft supplies, feathers, fabrics, organic materials and clay are all utilized. Certain mediums can help support different emotions. For example – clay is an excellent medium to work with for individuals who feel angry. Mixed media or pictures can be good for feelings of anxiety or overwhelm. To overcome perfectionism, painting with the left hand with eyes closed is a great way to let go of control.

The Healing Power of Creative Expression

Creating art can quieten the analytical, scientific mind and activate the playful, creative part of the brain to open up. If you are willing to try something new like Art Therapy that physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experience can translate into other aspects of recovery.

Creating art is not only beneficial to those in recovery from addiction – it is an activity available and accessible to anyone. Art Therapy is beneficial to those who struggle to identify their emotions verbally, have learning challenges, are feeling resistant, and to those who have experienced trauma, or suffer from PTSD. Creating art can help to work through trauma without having to talk about it. Artwork itself serves as a container for intense feelings. It is like a release – to put these experiences and emotions onto an external medium.

Creative expression is being used across the board with lots of success – specifically with children – so often they cannot express their experience, but they can do so in pictures. Art therapists can also be found in hospitals, prisons, schools, and support groups.

“The Scribble” – A Simple at Home Art Therapy Practice
  1. Find a chunky crayon
  2. Take a moment to reflect, calm, and ground yourself.
  3. Hold the crayon in your non dominant hand
  4. Close your eyes
  5. Begin scribbling
  6. Begin colouring in the spaces with different colours – like a colouring book.
  7. Give yourself an opportunity to get out of your head!

As you do this you are engaging in a mindfulness practice. You are accessing the playful right side of your brain and getting out of your analytical side of your brain. It is a calming practice – it doesn’t matter what it looks like!

The scribble is also a great way to connect with children. You can use it as a warm up as well if you want to continue creating more in depth pieces of art. For Art Therapist Jodi Strom, “The Scribble” became a very healing tool. She sees it as a safe way to journal visually and an opportunity to express and process her emotions.

When you are engaged in a session of Art Therapy at Cedars you might have a flow experience. This means that you are literally giving your brain a rest. You may lose your sense of time or place. This flow is not an escape – it is a mindful and guided practice, with a therapist to hold space for you, and an opportunity for you to nourish your body, mind and spirit in a very healthy way. Art Therapy is a powerful and transformative process that the staff at Cedars passionately believe in.

Our Residential Addiction Treatment Centre

Specializing in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, Cedars at Cobble Hill also provide treatment for other process addictions including eating disorders and gambling.