Many are familiar with the soothing, calming effects coloring, doodling, or drawing can have on a person. Adult coloring books have flooded the market in recent years and provide a fun and simple way to get creative, decompress, and relieve stress.
However, using art as part of therapy involves a different process. Let’s look at how art therapists, who are credentialed mental health care professionals, integrate the use of art to provide a creative and individualized path toward recovery.
What Is Art Therapy, and How Can It Help People with Eating Disorders?
Art therapy is a tool therapists employ to support eating disorder (ED) patients using a creative process to identify, express, and resolve difficult thoughts and emotions. Materials like pens, markers, pencils, paints, clay, digital media, and photos support creative expression and exploration. And using art, metaphor, and symbolism helps spark conversations that can be difficult to initiate using words alone.
The unconscious mind can find its voice using a multitude of creative channels:
- Creating abstract art to express anxiety
- Molding a clay mask to represent the pressures of perfectionism
- Drawing a key to unlock the parts of the self that stay hidden or feel shameful
Art therapy bridges the gap between non-verbal and verbal language, offering a creative approach to building the awareness and skills needed in the eating disorder recovery process. These innovative therapies help people suffering from eating disorders to do the following:
- Identify, express, and explore complex emotions
- Uncover unconscious beliefs or feelings that are fueling ED behaviors
- Cultivate inner awareness
- Approach complex subjects or internal conflicts in a non-direct way
- Challenge perfectionistic tendencies
- Release the fear of judgment, as no experience or skills are needed
- Shift perspectives and open to new possibilities
Expected Results from Practicing Art Therapy for Eating Disorders
Art therapy is a unique way to work with and shift unconscious beliefs. The discoveries people make and the skills they develop while using this style of therapy can produce many beneficial results, including the following:
- The ability to identify and express sensations or thoughts that may be triggering behaviors
- Increased self-awareness and self-esteem
- An understanding of different coping strategies
- The ability to self-advocate when making treatment decisions and communicate more effectively with friends and family
- A reduction in anxiety, stress, and rigid thinking patterns
How Does Art Therapy Differ from Other Forms of Therapy?
Though healthcare professionals may integrate art therapy with other traditional talk therapy models, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), its focus on the creative process to help heal rather than relying on the need to verbalize feelings is what makes it so unique.
Arts Therapies (AsTs) are considered a valuable intervention for those suffering from eating disorders (1). Creative Arts Therapies (CAT) or Expressive Arts Therapies (EAT) offer additional modalities such as writing, music, dance, storytelling, drama, or role-play.
A few examples of these may include the following options:
- Dance to ground and encourage embodiment
- Music to help regulate the nervous system
- Writing to visualize and clarify challenging thoughts or emotions
- Drama to act out experiences or feelings in a safe space
Ways to Find a Qualified Art Therapist to Help with an Eating Disorder
To find a highly qualified art therapist, reach out to your primary care doctor or mental health provider for recommendations. The American Art Therapy Association also provides an Art Therapist Locator to help you search for a local therapist (2).
Shoreline Center for Eating Disorder Treatment offers its own art therapy programs. Visit our website for details about our Expressive Arts and Expressive Writing Groups. For more information, please fill out our contact form or give us a call at 562-434-6007 to learn how to integrate a creative approach into your recovery.
- Bucharová, M., Malá, A., Kantor, J., & Svobodová, Z. (2020). Arts Therapies Interventions and Their Outcomes in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: Scoping Review Protocol. Behavioral Sciences, 10(12), 188. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs10120188
- American Art Therapy Association. (n.d.). Art Therapist Locator. https://arttherapy.org/art-therapist-locator/
Lara Scriba has been a Registered Nurse since 2002 with a background in emergency, community, public, and home health care, while also enjoying working as a travel nurse in both the US and Canada. She currently specializes in eating disorder recovery as a yoga teacher and Eat Breathe Thrive facilitator, is a reiki practitioner, and member of the AHNA.