What is creative therapy?

Creative therapy combines talking therapies with expressive arts techniques and materials. This can mean using art in the therapy room, such as drawing, painting or collage, and it can include anything from movement, dance and play to creative writing and music. It’s possible to explore using creativity with therapy in lots of ways and different creative or arts-based therapists will be able to support you to do this – this article is just an introduction.

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Before we begin, it’s important to understand that, in order to work creatively in a therapy session, you do not need to be good at art. In fact, it can help if you don’t have much experience or education in this area. In creative therapy, the art materials are there to support you to access your feelings – not to make something that looks good.

It could begin with choosing a colour… Perhaps you don’t know how to put into words what you’d like to say. Is there a colour that sums it up? Maybe you’ve got an image or a metaphor in your head that feels like a really good way to describe how you feel even though it doesn’t bear much relation to the facts of a situation. Or maybe you just don’t know how to begin at all. In fact, perhaps that’s a part of the problem…

Below are some examples of ways of working creatively.

Drawing

There are different materials we can use to draw with in therapy and the paper can be any size, really large or small. It can feel good to move quickly through several different pieces in a session.

Getting started could include finding a movement that helps express your feelings as you move a bright pen across a page. Perhaps the feeling is spiky? Perhaps it moves fast. Or maybe it’s gentle and enquiring and needs a softer tone. Maybe you need a smudgy sort of material, such as charcoal or pastel, to get closer to expressing what is underneath the surface for you.

It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before! It’s the beginning of a journey and an opportunity to explore an inner mystery, or perhaps to let out the feelings of a crisis. We can talk as you draw, or after you draw or not at all, depending on what feels helpful or right for you in the moment.

Collage

Working with collage and found imagery can be helpful if you find it intimidating to try and produce your own marks on a page. Sometimes ripping up paper and tearing pages from magazines can feel very satisfying - therapeutic in itself. It can be fun to select images that appeal to us even though we don’t know why. Sometimes, although not always, a deeper level of meaning occurs to us later – when we sit with the pieces we’ve collected and stuck together and let them ‘speak’ to us.

Nesting dolls

Have you ever felt like you’re made up of different parts? Maybe there are layers inside of you that are hidden? Using nesting dolls, we can begin to explore the different parts of ourselves and experiment with bringing them into dialogue.

Perhaps there’s an important issue in your life at the moment and you’re divided about how you feel about it. What would it be like to try and express the different sides of a situation or story using the different layers of a nesting doll? Perhaps you’d like to create a timeline or tell the story of a relationship.

Would you like to decorate your own nesting doll? Or maybe make some images or some other creative piece based on what the different layers suggest to you.

Play figurines

In addition to working with nesting dolls, you can use any number of symbolic objects and toys in a creative therapy session to explore something symbolically. Toy figures can be combined with art materials, for example, wrapped in twine or buried in sand or clay.

A bowl of pebbles, shells and other natural objects could suggest ways to portray a situation or feeling in abstract shapes and textures. Working with figures and objects could inspire you to do a drawing or become the basis for a piece of writing. It can be a playful way to tease through dilemmas that feel a little stuck.

Let your imagination lead – a creative therapist can support you in exploring your inner world and personal relationships, such as families or even work teams, using metaphor to draw out new meanings. 

Journaling and creative writing

Writing about how we feel and keeping a log of our thoughts can be a useful self-development tool. Journaling can be a great support alongside and after therapy and can complement the process well. Perhaps you enjoy crafting with language and reading and writing poetry? Have you ever thought about writing a letter to someone past or present, or even to a younger version of yourself? It doesn’t have to be something you plan to, or are able to, send. What would it feel like to read it aloud with someone bearing witness?

Exploring dreams

Sharing and exploring dreams can be a part of creative therapy. Dreams also offer us a language of metaphor and speak from a different part of us. Have you ever had a dream that has stuck in your mind or felt like it comes from a deeper place somehow?

What would it feel like to try and share a dream or even make or write something based on your memory of it? What’s the most vivid part of the dream for you? What’s the feeling you were left with or that stands out the most?

What would it be like to try to tell the story of your dream from the point of view of its different parts? For example, "I am the sky. I carry the person who’s running towards me, holding them as they fly," or "I am an angry dog, baring my teeth and chasing the man."

You could make a drawing or collage based on the images in a dream or perhaps more abstractly, inspired by the feelings and colours of it.

These are just some ideas and starting places. Maybe you have a feel for a certain kind of media that hasn’t been described here, such as photography, or you enjoy making 3D objects or working with clay? Perhaps you’d like to explore things in movement, music, role play or dance?

Working creatively online

It’s possible to do creative work in online therapy sessions, too. For this to be effective, you will need to be able to hold your therapy session somewhere where you feel safe and will not be overheard, and you will need to have some materials to hand. This could be as simple as some pens and paper, and depending on your space could include any of the items described above.

It could be a self-care practice to collect some creative therapy resources you can bring to and use in session – whether that means taking a walk in nature and finding some inspiring stones, some curiously twisted branches or textured moss or doing a browse of charity shops or online craft suppliers for items that feel appealing to you.

Working creatively in therapy can bring new light to old issues and can be a powerful way to make new discoveries in ourselves. If you’re interested in, or excited by some of these ideas, there are lots of therapists who work creatively. Some therapists have trained in talking therapies and added further training to support them to blend creative methods into their approach. There are also therapists who have trained in a particular specialism such as art therapists, music therapists and drama therapists.

If you’d like to find out more, or to book a session for creative therapy, either online or at my therapy room in central Leeds, please get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leeds, LS1 2NL
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Written by Beverley Moslin, BA(Hons), DipHE, Registered Accredited Member MBACP
Leeds, LS1 2NL

Beverley Moslin is a creative therapist and clinical supervisor working online and in central Leeds.

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