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Expressive Therapy for Alcoholism

Alcohol addiction is a pervasive, chronic, and relapsing disease that impacts as many as one out of every 12 adults in the United States, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) publishes. There are various contributing factors regarding why a person may struggle with problematic drinking and alcoholism, including biological and genetic factors as well as environmental ones.

Alcohol can become a maladaptive method for coping with stress and difficult emotions. One of the side effects of alcohol addiction is the onset of withdrawal symptoms when without the substance, which can include significant mood swings, feelings of anxiety, and depression.

Mood and anxiety disorders, as well as other mental health issues, commonly co-occur with alcohol abuse and addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that nearly 8 million American adults struggled with both addiction and a simultaneous mental health disorder in 2014.

Types of Expressive Therapy

Since alcohol addiction is such an individual disease, there are many different methods for treatment. Traditional addiction treatment programs commonly use behavioral therapies for the rehabilitation of self-destructive thoughts and actions. Many comprehensive treatment programs also include complementary, or adjunctive, therapies as well. Expressive therapy is a method that is often integrated with traditional methods as a form of complementary medicine. Expressive therapy techniques can include:

  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Drama therapy
  • Poetry or creative writing therapy
  • Dance or movement therapy
  • Play therapy

Expressive therapies can be beneficial when used during rehabilitation for alcohol addiction. They may be integrated into a complete addiction treatment program that will also offer verbal methods in addition to creative therapies.

Expressive Therapy in Alcohol Rehab

The journal Aging Health publishes that as many as 60 percent of Americans have participated in some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) program in their lifetimes. Complementary techniques are gaining ground as healthy and noninvasive methods for reducing stress and anxiety, improving communication skills, strengthening the mind-body-spirit connection, and enhancing a person’s overall quality of life.

The Journal of Addictions Nursing reports that art and music therapy may be helpful during addiction treatment specifically to alleviate denial, open up lines of communication, reduce feelings of shame, lessen stress, and provide a healthy outlet for difficult emotions. Art and music therapy may increase a person’s willingness to participate in alcoholism rehab and increase motivation to make positive life changes. Through creative expression, individuals may be able to express themselves in a nonverbal manner, and emotions may be uncovered that were previously unexplored.

The National Coalition of Creative Art Therapies Association (NCCATA) publishes that expressive therapies can enhance health and wellness by improving cognitive, emotional, physical, and social functioning. The journal Psychology Today publishes that expressive therapies differ from verbal therapy techniques by including the following characteristics:

  • Self-expression
  • Imagination
  • Active participation
  • Mind-body connections

During an expressive therapy session, individuals may create their own individual pieces or work with a group. Expressive therapies may include journaling, creative writing, acting, singing, dancing, painting, sculpting, song writing, playing musical instruments, drawing, role-playing, and other creative methods of expression.

Through creative expression, individuals may discover a healthy method of vocalizing their feelings and emotions in nontraditional ways. Expressive therapy sessions may include a time to reflect on the creation to explore what the piece is saying about a person’s specific emotional state. During alcohol addiction rehabilitation, expressive therapies can provide individuals with a healthy outlet for their strong emotions and a method of “getting it out.” This can also serve as a method of opening up dialogues, and exploring personal thoughts and negative behaviors that may be self-destructive.

Art and creative therapy sessions may have a specific prompt, or they can be more freeform. Having a prompt initially can help to begin the creative process. When people move on to creating things freely on their own, the mind may wander, and things may appear that the person had no idea they were even going to create. Individuals may be able to get a better insight into themselves, gaining a new level of self-awareness that enhances the connection between the mind and the body. By tapping into a person’s passions, art therapy can help people to visualize their own internal struggles and therefore reduce anxiety, Psych Central publishes.

Expressive therapies are typically used as adjunctive measures, meaning that traditional “talk” therapies are still included as the primary part of the program; the creative therapy sessions just serve to enhance them. Expressive therapy sessions can be included in both inpatient and outpatient rehab programs.

Benefits of Expressive Therapy in Rehab

Expressive therapies are nonjudgmental and non-confrontational. Each client is able to work through their own creative methods on their own without fear of what others may think or say. Expressive therapies are also noninvasive and generally inexpensive as well. The artistic expressions and methods used during an expressive therapy session can be carried through into recovery, and therefore, they may be helpful as a method to help a person re-center in times of crisis.

Expressive therapies may uncover trauma and emotions that were buried deep, which may have served as triggers for problematic drinking, even without the knowledge of the individual. Being able to recognize potential triggers and stressors during rehab can help individuals learn how to cope with and manage them as they arise in recovery. Stress, relapse, and addiction are all complexly intertwined. Creative expression can be a great tool for stress relief, which then make expressive therapies helpful in minimizing instances of relapse.

Addiction can take over many parts of a person’s life, and it can be difficult for an individual to remember who they truly are. Artistic expression can help people battling alcohol addiction to rekindle old passions and reconnect with a truer version of themselves – back to who they were before the addiction.

Anger, shame, denial, sadness, and fear – these are all emotions that can be triggers and exacerbated by addiction. Expressive therapies can provide a healthy outlet for individuals to let out destructive emotions instead of taking them out on others around them or themselves. As a healthy outlet, expressive therapies can purge negative thoughts and emotions. These artistic and visual representations of an individual’s feelings can often be even more powerful than words, and provide a person with insights into how they are connected to subsequent actions. Expressive therapies can also offer a positive visual image of recovery, which may then enhance a person’s motivation to remain in treatment and actively participate in rehab in order to achieve and sustain a healthy recovery.

Pharmaceutical tools, behavioral therapies, group and individual counseling sessions, and support groups are commonly included in alcohol addiction rehabilitation programs. Expressive therapies have their place, too. They can be especially useful when used to complement more traditional modalities as part of a complete treatment program that focuses on the whole person to promote recovery.

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