The Impact of Art Therapy on Addiction Recovery

Art Therapy

The trend of including art therapy in addiction recovery has been growing in the past few years. But many people wonder how art can help a person stop using drugs. What does art therapy actually do and why do rehab centers offer it?

The first time someone mentioned art therapy to me, I was skeptical. Having worked in the mental health industry for a few years, I knew how much hard personal work went into treatment. Art just did not seem like it fit the bill.

However, the field of psychology is always evolving and anyone not open to new approaches is potentially depriving their patients of effective strategies. Years later, I’m glad I didn’t discount art therapy, as it can play a big role, especially in the treatment of addiction.

Let’s go into how art therapy works and why it can make a difference to people suffering from addiction.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that facilitates creative methods of expression through visual art. This typically involves techniques like drawing, painting, sculpting, and collage. Unlike traditional art-making, the focus in art therapy is not on the aesthetic or technical skill of the piece but rather on the process of creation and the emotional and psychological exploration it facilitates.

At its core, art therapy is grounded in the belief that creative expression can foster healing and mental well-being. It is practiced by professionals who are often certified as art therapists. These therapists have specialized training in both art and psychology and are skilled at using art as a medium for therapy. They work within various settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, wellness centers, schools, and private practices.

This all sounds great but how does it actually work? In what ways does it foster healing and recovery?

Using Art to Dig Deep in Therapy

Talk therapy has been at the heart of mental health treatment for over a century. It’s been proven effective through academic research. If you have spent time in talk therapy, you probably know how much it can help. But it is not the only route to mental wellbeing.

Talk therapy has its limitations. For people who struggle to express their feelings in words, even with the help of a therapist, talking will only do so much. Even for those of us who can talk all day about what we’re going through, there are always going to be subconscious blocks around certain internal experiences.

This is where art therapy can help. Some artists start a work with an idea of what they want to represent. In art therapy, the opposite approach is taken. You begin creating with only a vague vision of what you want to achieve. Then you let your instincts guide you.

Because you are not following a thought process, you inevitably end up expressing yourself without the block getting in your way. You learn about yourself without having to search for answers your mind is trying to avoid.

But what does this mean in practice?

How Do We Learn From Art Therapy?

Occasionally, a person will represent a repressed event or feeling in a way that requires no interpretation. At other times, there are more subtle representations and the art therapist is able to see beyond the surface.

However, a lot of the benefit of art therapy is in the process. Thoughts and feelings surface as you’re creating your work. You might suddenly remember something a parent said to you, or a trauma you went through. You might notice a sadness that you didn’t know you were feeling. The experience will be extremely personal.

The mistake many people make when thinking about treatment for mental health is this idea that you need to figure everything out in order to get well. It’s simply not true. You don’t need to know exactly why you developed certain unhealthy coping mechanisms. You don’t even need to know exactly why you feel a certain way.

In fact, you’ll never get to the bottom of it all. Some analysis is important, but the main goal of therapy is to learn ways to lower your distress and to move in a direction of growth and happiness.

Counteracting the Production Mentality

Just about every human being in the modern world has a production mentality. This is very helpful when doing what you need to support yourself and your family in a material sense. Unfortunately, it’s tough to turn it off outside of work hours.

This is why so many people have hobbies they’d love to try… but never get around to. As much as they want to play an instrument or paint or write poetry, it somehow feels incredibly difficult just to start.

Whether they know it or not, they are struggling with the guilt associated with the production mentality. That guilt tells us that effort is only worthwhile if there is a salary or marketable product at the end of it.

This is another benefit of art therapy that is especially important for recovering addicts. So many addicts talk about a lack of meaning in their lives. They’re not getting fulfillment from work and turn to substances in an attempt to avoid the associated feelings.

Art therapy is often the first time since childhood that they’re doing creative work without a deadline. It is an introduction into the enjoyment and meaning you can get from creativity, and that it’s worthwhile even though you’re not focused on a material goal.


Art therapy is increasingly used in addiction treatment. It is an effective way of delving deep into feelings that don’t easily rise to the surface. It helps people who struggle to talk about their experience to express themselves in a non-verbal way. It also leads to a renewed belief in the power of creativity, with a search for meaning unconnected to money or production.