Is Art Therapy Effective for Alcohol Addiction? The Science of Creativity

Treatment for alcohol use disorder is an individualized process. Art therapy can be a helpful tool for alcohol use disorder recovery. Art therapy uses creativity as a method of expression to support healing.1

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy can help those who typically find it challenging to verbalize feelings and emotions, giving them an outlet to communicate. Engaging in artistic activities has positive effects on physical and psychological health.1

Art therapy is a treatment modality used by professionally trained art therapists to assist you in overcoming mental health disorders, substance use disorders, and many other disorders. After completing a piece of artwork, therapists often use it to:2

  • Explore feelings and emotions regarding the art and the creative process
  • Teach self-awareness and mindfulness at the moment
  • Raise self-esteem and confidence
  • Cope with anxiety, depression, or other mental health symptoms

Art Therapy and the Brain

A study on the brain shows creativity, like art therapy, awakens regions in the brain—like the hippocampus, which is connected to learning and memory—that may suffer from damage. Using art therapy with participants, results showed creative expression improves brain function, such as memory.3 If substance misuse can damage parts of the brain, this may mean art therapy can help repair those areas.

Art therapy is an aesthetic experience, which some researchers claim is hard-wired in your brain to promote well-being, good health, and learning. Art can reinforce reward and pleasure in the brain and enable you to communicate and build connections.4 Being creative can also help you feel more in control. Some research indicates that creativity and the ideas produced from being creative give you the ability to change the world you live in and help you adapt to changes that are out of your control.5

Furthermore, since the brain doesn’t stop developing until you are in your mid-twenties, exposure to art experiences throughout a child’s life may promote better mental and physical health. It could be effective as a drug and alcohol prevention tool, not just a therapeutic method for treating substance misuse.6

Art Therapy for Physical and Psychological Health

Creative art therapy has shown evidence it is a low-risk treatment modality that produces positive results when used in mental health counseling. It has been used successfully with mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Other studies have found art therapy helpful in treating schizophrenia and trauma-related disorders.7

Art therapy helps reduce anxiety, depression, and helps some people feel calm, entertained, and more capable of expressing themselves and communicating their emotions.8 These symptoms often occur in people with substance use disorders, and art therapy may be able to reduce negative symptoms like persistent worry, sadness, fatigue, and sleep problems.8

Art Therapy Used for Alcohol Treatment

When used to treat alcohol use disorders, art therapy gives you a way to express yourself that is nonverbal and can reveal important information regarding your alcohol misuse. Art therapists encourage reflection and interpretation of the artwork.

Art therapists may use several techniques to help you understand and change your relationship with alcohol, including:9

  • Incident drawings, where an art therapist asks you to draw an event or situation that happened
  • Painting or drawing your emotions
  • Stress painting, used at the time you feel stressed or anxious to get relief
  • Journaling with art
  • Sculpturing

A certified or licensed art therapist must facilitate art therapy. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists must earn a master’s degree to work in a clinical field such as substance use disorder treatment. They must also complete 100 hours of supervised clinical practicum. Art therapists hold certification and have the training to provide therapy for people of all ages. They understand clinical processes, how art changes the brain, multicultural diversity, and how to match the proper treatment with each person for optimal benefits.10

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How Effective Is Art Therapy for Substance Use Treatment?

Art therapy as a part of alcohol treatment can lead to positive outcomes. The reported benefits of art therapy are:11

  • Increased acceptance and reduced denial
  • Increased willingness to go to treatment
  • Another form of communication other than verbal
  • Motivation to make changes
  • Complementing traditional therapies and 12-step models

Other research shows art therapy is effective by:12

  • Supporting goals that are personal and relate to others
  • Improving cognitive and sensorimotor functions
  • Fostering self-esteem and confidence
  • Cultivating emotional strength and resilience
  • Promoting greater insight into the self
  • Enhancing social and interpersonal skills
  • Reducing and resolving conflict and stress

Art Therapy for Co-Occurring Disorders

A review of studies on art therapy’s effectiveness found encouraging results. While the study was not specific to art therapy and alcohol use disorder, it included mental health and physical health factors co-occur with substance misuse, including:13

  • Depression—Nine out of nine studies found art therapy significantly reduced symptoms of depression which can include feeling sad, tired, unmotivated, empty, and hopeless.
  • Anxiety—Six out of seven studies found art therapy significantly reduced anxiety symptoms like nervousness, constant worry, heart racing, sweating, and inability to concentrate.
  • Mood—Three out of four  studies found art therapy produced significant improvements to mood.
  • Trauma—Three out of three studies found art therapy reduced symptoms of trauma. The misuse of drugs and alcohol can cause trauma. Trauma may also be a reason someone starts misusing substances to self-medicate. Post-traumatic stress disorder often co-occurs with substance use disorders.14
  • Distress—Three out of three studies found art therapy lowered stress levels at a much higher rate than the control.

Other areas tested that found art therapy provides much more significant results than the control in affecting quality of life, coping, cognition, and self-esteem.13

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What to Expect in Art Therapy

Art therapy is versatile. Painting and drawing are frequently utilized activities. However, art therapy can also include music, drama, and writing. Art therapy can lead to beneficial discussions that help you heal.8

Art therapy may include guided and unguided activities, such as:15,16

  • Collage activity
  • Pastel and oil painting
  • Painting on canvas
  • Watercolor painting
  • Drawing or sketching
  • Craft-making
  • Guided imagery
  • Music
  • Expression through dance
  • Poetry
  • Photography
  • Sculpture
  • Clay modeling
  • Collage making
  • Art appreciation

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Resources:

  1. Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. American Journal of public health, 100(2), 254-263.
  2. National Institute of Health Clinical Center. (2020). Recreational Therapy.
  3. Beaty R. E. (2020). The Creative Brain. Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science, 2020, cer-02-20.
  4. Magsamen S. (2019). Your Brain on Art: The Case for Neuroaesthetics. Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science, 2019, cer-07-19.
  5. Andreasen N. C. (2011). A journey into chaos: creativity and the unconscious. Mens Sana monographs, 9(1), 42-53.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, November 17). What’s the Connection Between Art and Brain Development?
  7. Chiang M, Reid-Varley WB, Fan X. (2019). Creative art therapy for mental illness. Psychiatry Research, 129-136.
  8. Hu, J., Zhang, J., Hu, L., & Xu, J. (2021). Art Therapy: A Complementary Treatment for Mental Disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 686005.
  9. Aletraris, L., Paino, M., Edmond, M., Roman, P., & Bride, B.. (2014). The use of art and music therapy in substance abuse treatment programs. Journal of Addictions Nursing, 25(4), 190-196.
  10. Iguina, M.M., Kashan, S. (2021). Art Therapy.
  11. American Art Therapy Association. (2021). Becoming an Art Therapist.
  12. Regev, D., & Cohen-Yatziv, L. (2018). Effectiveness of Art Therapy With Adult Clients in 2018-What Progress Has Been Made? Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1531.
  13. Uttley, L., Scope, A., Stevenson, M., Rawdin, A., Buck, E.T., Sutton, A., Stevens, J., Kaltenhaler, E., Dent-Brown, K., & Wood, C. (2015). Chapter 2, Clinical effectiveness of art therapy: quantitative systematic review.
  14. S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). PTSD and Alcohol Use.
  15. Costa, A. M., Alves, R., Castro, S., Vincente, S., & Silva, S. (2020). Exploring the Effects of Guided vs. Unguided Art Therapy Methods. Behavioral Sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 10(3),
  16. Vaartio-Rajalin, H., Santamäki-Fischer, R., Jokisalo, P., & Fagerström, L.. (2020). Art making and expressive art therapy in adult health and nursing care: A scoping review. International Journal of Nursing Sciences, 8(1), 102-119.

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