Art Therapy in Addiction Treatment

Alcohol addiction is a multi-faceted disease to be living with, affecting many areas of an individual’s life.

As a result of this, many people find it beneficial to take a more complex approach to therapy and support, seeking multiple forms of treatment to assist their recovery.

In this blog, we will talk about art therapy, an alternative therapy which can offer a constructive and engaging way for individuals to better express and understand themselves during and after their recovery.

What is Art Therapy?

Graffiti art of a face

Art therapy draws upon creative expression, such as drawing, collaging or sculpting, as an alternative way to express yourself and support your “social, emotional and mental health needs”.

This treatment is a form of psychotherapy and can be practiced as an individual or in group settings. It is often used in conjunction with other forms of treatment including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).

Due to the diverted focus, this can be less intense or uncomfortable than traditional talking therapies, which often require sustained focus and emotional vulnerability.

Art therapy can help a person to develop more productive communication, leading to a more fruitful understanding of their emotional wellbeing and how it is affected by their relationship with alcohol.

Of course, art therapy alone is not a ‘magic bullet’ cure for addiction problems, but it can prove to be a highly effective aspect of a broader treatment plan, supporting and enhancing progress in multiple areas of an individual’s life.

Who Can Benefit from Art Therapy?

Art therapy is used to treat people who are living with a wide range of mental health problems, from grief to schizophrenia, and the British Association of Art Therapists claims that art therapy is “designed to help anyone, including those whose life has been affected by adverse experiences, illness or disability”.

However, it can be particularly useful for those dealing with addiction.

Not only can the act of creating replace more damaging coping mechanisms, but it can also be used to identify factors such as root causes or regular triggers in relation to alcohol addiction.

How Can Art Therapy Help Those who are Dealing with Addiction?

Holding hands

The potential benefits of art therapy are numerous and diverse, supporting an individual recovering from addiction in multiple areas of their life.

However, some key benefits include:

  • Offering an individual stability and relaxation, relieving stress and anxiety. This can be particularly valuable if it is used as part of a broader (and potentially stressful) treatment plan.
  • The replacement of negative or destructive coping mechanisms with more creative and fulfilling responses.
  • The promotion of healthy and constructive self-expression, facilitating communication and understanding.
  • The use of creativity to build confidence and boost self-esteem, strengthening a sense of identity.
  • Facilitating the exploration of trauma or difficult experiences, which in turn can help to process the uncomfortable emotions which they may have caused.
  • The provision of focus and structure during the recovery process, contributing to feelings of empowerment.
  • Allowing an individual to connect with both themselves and others, improving relationships and feelings of acceptance.

When is Art Therapy Helpful while Dealing with Addiction?

Art therapy is most beneficial when it is one component of a broader treatment plan, and it can be an effective way to deal with complex emotions and assist with the treatment of other mental health problems which may be associated with alcoholism, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety.

Due to the versatile nature of art therapy and its numerous benefits, art therapy can offer support during detox, rehabilitation and beyond.

By supporting mental wellbeing, reducing stress and fostering feelings of self-worth, art therapy can also assist in reducing the risk of relapse.

After recovery, it can be beneficial for individuals to schedule art therapy at particular times when they may previously have drunk alcohol, such as weekends or evenings.

Regular art therapy can also be a way to apply structure and routine to post recovery life, focussing on recovery in a positive, productive and enjoyable way.

What Types of Art Therapy can be used to Treat Addiction?

There are three approaches to art therapy which people in recovery are likely to find most helpful.

These include

1. Active Imagination

In this form of therapy, the individual in recovery will be encouraged to create a free-form piece of art choosing whichever themes or subjects they like.

The piece which they create will be used by their therapist to generate questions designed to link the art to experiences, emotions or thoughts which the individual may wish to share or explore.

This form of art therapy encourages the individual to speak about their own interpretation of their work, and consider what the creative process means to themself, their identity and their recovery process.

2. Gestalt

In this form of therapy, the individual in recovery receives more direction from their therapist, and will instead be asked to create a work of art which more specifically depicts or references a current mood, emotional state or experience.

This form of art therapy is particularly targeted at encouraging expression and in-depth reflection, and focuses more specifically upon the moment and addressing specific problems or difficulties.

3. Third Hand

In this form of therapy, the therapist will be more involved in the creation of the artwork, receiving direction from the individual in recovery.

This form of therapy can be particularly effective in supporting communication, as by taking control to the therapist, the individual will be both encouraged to better articulate themselves and feel empowered to take direction, choosing their own starting point.

What Can I Expect at an Art Therapy Session?

It is clear that the three different types of art therapy offer diverse benefits, and it is important to remember that different techniques will work better for different people in different stages of recovery.

Furthermore, therapists and organisations will vary in the ways in which they choose to practice each type.

However, it can be helpful to have an idea of what the average session might involve.

Art therapy is often practiced in groups,to promote the benefits of communication and foster community and self-worth.

Sessions can last up to several hours, and will be led by a therapist who has been specifically trained to practice this form of art therapy.

They will introduce themselves, and may also offer some explanations of the type of art therapy they will be using and the aims of the session.

The art created during art therapy can be as broad and diverse as creating dance or writing poetry, but most sessions will offer mediums which are easier to work with, such as painting, drawing or sculpting with clay.

After art has been created, discussion – either between individuals and the therapist or as part of a group exercise – will commence.

Questions may touch upon the content of or inspiration behind the art itself, the emotions experienced by the individual during the creative process or more specifically how the individual relates their creative work to alcohol addiction.

Art created can include free-form drawing or painting, guided imagery, and making collages, sculptures, or mandalas.

Many people then choose to keep the work they create during art therapy, as they serve as a reminder of self-analysis and optimism for the future.

Which Qualifications and Credentials Should I Look for in an Art Therapist?


An art therapist should be qualified with both a degree in art or creative therapies and a postgraduate qualification in art therapy which has been approved by the Health and Care Professions Council.

These qualifications ensure the professional standards and efficacy of the treatment they are able to provide.

Where Can I Find Art Therapy Treatments?

Most addiction treatments are available in two key forms: inpatient and outpatient.

This means that some services will be available to individuals who have chosen to stay at a rehabilitation centre, while others will be targeted towards those who have chosen to undergo or continue treatment while living outside of a formal rehabilitation centre.

For those who have chosen to be an inpatient, art therapy is often offered as a holistic therapy as part of the broader treatment plan created by specialists at the centre.

This may involve range of art forms and could be available individually or as part of a group.

For outpatients, art therapy can be arranged by GPs, charities or private rehabilitation services, and are more likely to have a group format.

What is the Science Behind Art Therapy?

Art therapy has been proven to have a positive effect on issues related to addiction and mental health problems.

Some of the evidence includes

  1. A 2003 study on addiction by Michael Winkelman found that drumming “produces pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self”, summarising that “Drumming circles have applications as complementary addiction therapy, particularly for repeated relapse”.
  2. A 2005 study at the University of Georgia uncovered a “decrease in depression, stress, anxiety, and anger” amongst individuals in substance abuse rehabilitation “immediately following the music therapy sessions”.
  3. A 2005 study on people who are chemically dependent by Jennifer D. Jones found that “Seventy-five percent of subjects indicated […] that music therapy sessions were a significant tool for their recovery.” and concluded that “ Irrespective of technique, music therapy elicited significant emotional change during a single session and was perceived as therapeutic by the participants”.
  4. A 2014 study on substance abuse treatment programmes at the University of Georgia concluded that “art and music therapies […]may ultimately improve patient outcomes by offering more robust treatment options”.
  5. A 2017 study on severe and moderately severe depression at the University of Gothenburg found a “clear effect of art therapy on severe depression”.

Which Other Therapies Might be Combined with Art Therapy?

Group Therapy

The sheer breadth of the issues art therapy can assist with means it combines effectively with a whole range of addiction therapies and treatments.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of treatment which focusses on identifying and altering negative thought and behaviour patterns, and can be a fundamental recovery tool for those facing alcohol addiction.

With its focus on exploring, expressing and processing emotions in a healthy way, art therapy can contribute effectively to these processes.

Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is another type of talking therapy, and is very similar to CBT.

However, DBTs focus is on the understanding, acceptance and management of powerful feelings, and is designed to be helpful for people who feel emotions particularly intensely.

As art therapy can often be used to identify and closely analyse feelings, it can be a complementary therapy to DBT.

Other alternative treatments and holistic therapies which can be used to support addiction recovery include mindfulness, equine therapy and acupuncture.

How Does Art Therapy Fit in with the 12-Steps?

While not everyone chooses to use the 12-steps when dealing with alcohol addiction, for many it is a helpful framework through which progress and recovery can be structured and charted.

As the nature of the 12 step programme specifically encourages reflection on the impact that alcohol addiction has had on yourself, your life and the lives of others, art therapy can be a constructive and empowering way to begin exploring and expressing these issues within a safe and comfortable environment.

Furthermore, art therapy can be hugely helpful in processing difficult emotions which may arise whilst completing the 12 steps.

The stability and support offered by regular art therapy sessions can help to ease feelings such as anger, shame, sadness or anxiety.

In Conclusion

A woman holding a mobile phone

Art therapy can be a highly beneficial tool for recovery from alcohol addiction or indeed any addiction, whether physical or psychological.

If you think that art therapy could be a helpful step on your recovery journey, then reach out to our expert team today on 0800 111 4108.

With the right help behind you, any addiction can be overcome.