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Expressive Arts Therapy

Using music, dance, storytelling or even silence to express oneself.

You might have heard of Expressive Art Therapy (EXA).  You might also think it has to do with making art.  It certainly does, but it is so much more that this. Expressive arts is based on how we expressive ourselves in ALL the ways we do so in life. This implies that where we come from, where we are now and where we want to go is all in the same room with us and is being expressed in the way we feel, think and speak, the decisions we make, and the behavior we exhibit. Imbedded in these ideas is how all of this affects the physical and emotional body.  The science of EXA is actually based on the neuroscience of mind-body integration. There are different means we can point to as examples of expression: movement, music, storytelling, and silence. But there are also other ways that are combined modes or that don’t fit into any category. The freedom to express your life experience is the portal for self-awareness and healing.  When we engage in a full Self-expression inside the safety of a therapeutic container, we expand the expression of ourselves safely and authentically in every other area of life.

Cathi Malchiodi, an author of EXA says: Movement is a foundation for almost all expressive arts and healing practices and is central to cultures throughout history. Dance is the expressive art form probably most associated with movement for well-being. It has numerous sociocultural and anthropological explanations that support its importance to strengthening not just the individual, but also the social bonds within the community throughout history. Some propose that it is, in fact, an experience that has helped humanity to develop empathy and adaptation to the environment because of its emphasis on interconnectedness, rhythm, and synchrony. Many cultural groups have specific dances that often go beyond movement to include spiritual and symbolic components, such as Polynesian Hula, Australian Aboriginal Corroboree or Native American Sundance. There are “energy arts” such as Tai Chi and practices such as yoga that have deeper meanings and significance beyond just movement. Also, there are many other activities and practices, including movement-based sensory integration, bilateral movement via two-handed drawing, or clay work and play-based experiences.

 Music and music-making are arts-based wellness practices across cultures, but they also fall into the broader category of sound. Oliver Sacks (2007) summarizes the value of music, noting “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears—it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more—it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” Sacks underscores that music possibly influences and impacts emotions quickly and effectively, encourages movement and speech and generally enlivens individuals. Singing (whether individually or in a group) and playing musical instruments are core expressive arts approaches. The larger realm of sound reaches beyond music to include chanting, praying and recital of verse or stories, sound vibrations and listening. 

Storytelling, the third category, is often perceived as a language-driven activity and often writing or oral storytelling comes to mind. But in fact, stories are communicated in many ways through expressive arts and play-based experiences. Visual art (drawing, painting, clay work, collage, photography, and film) are forms of graphic or symbolic storytelling through images; play and particularly sand tray work with miniatures conveys narratives. Any form of dramatic enactment, performance, role play, improvisation communicate stories; ceremonies and rituals that include movement, sound, imagery, and language have a similar function. There are also implicit narratives that individual communicate through movement; even body language including posture and gesture tell a story on a sensory-based level.

The final category—silence—emphasizes the way many expressive arts can quiet the mind and regulate the body. Silence is an important health-giving experience; we most often think of this in the form of contemplative practices such as mindfulness and meditation. In particular, art-making as a source of mindful focus and mindful movements such as yoga and labyrinth walking fall into this category. Silence is also a factor in how expressive arts enhance the ability to “look inside” oneself through interoception (the sense of the body’s internal state) and experience a “felt sense” of what is perceived and sensed in one’s body. Finally, attending and witnessing theater, performances and art objects in museums often involve silence as a core experience and are a form of focused contemplation.

In using expressive arts to address traumatic stress, these overlapping functions are key to supporting neurobiological experiences of self-regulation, grounding and anchoring, and the interoception of safety—the core foundations of repair and recovery from trauma (Malchiodi, 2019; 2020).

Expressive arts explained:

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