Expressive therapy recognized as effective treatment

By Becca Morello[email protected] – Contributor
The use of artistic expression as therapy, often referred to as expressive therapy, proves increasingly effective in dealing with mental health, according to arts professionals and psychologists.
“Art is coming in now a lot more often as a chosen way of helping people in therapies so that it’s not all just cognitive therapy, but more so as through the expressive arts helping people who maybe need to do it more physically, more creatively and explore how they’re feeling through the arts,” said Laura Bond, drama department chair and professor at UNC Asheville. 
Expressive therapy, or creative arts therapy, as defined by officials at the National Institute of Mental Health, encompasses many art forms, such as drama, dance, writing, music, art and other creative activities as a way to heal from a traumatic event or alleviate any stress from the mind.
More than 15,000 expressive arts therapists practice around the United States and the number of certified arts therapists continues to grow, according to officials at the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Association.
“A lot of the creative arts therapists are looking to get licensed. They want their profession licensed, just like social work and counseling,” said Lauren DiMaio, music therapist and bereavement manager at Care Partners Hospice in Asheville. “This is ongoing research and it’s worldwide, not just in Asheville.”
Other categories exist within expressive therapy where therapists specialize in one aspect of art.
“Expressive therapists and people that I have met who tend to do that have a degree in counseling and maybe took extra courses related to creative arts. Little bit of music, little bit of art, little bit of dance, little bit of drama, a little bit of everything. Whereas as a music therapist, I am an expert in music therapy,” DiMaio said.
An interest in arts and beauty correlates with a more open personality and results in the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain responsible for helping the body identify pleasurable sensations and respond to emotions, according to a three-year study conducted by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Whenever there is unrest within my interior world, I go first to the page to try and learn what is beneath that, what is going on. Just attempt to unravel my own story. Having that refuge and tool has been incredibly important over the years and continues to be,” said Griffin Payne, a spoken-word poetry performer and teacher in Asheville.
About 55 percent of communication relies on body language, 38 percent on the tone of voice and 7 percent comes from the actual words, according to a study on non-verbal communication by Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D., a member of the psychology department at UCLA.
“A lot of times we can get stuck in our head, and the creative arts are really nice, because they get you out of your head and into the rest of you. We’re not just a head, but a lot of us live there,” said Cindy Shealy, social worker at Crossing Point Counseling in Asheville.
The brain responds to various stimuli such as art, and with a FMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists can document and record the brain’s response and understand its role in mental procedure, experts say.
“We’re at this really interesting place where we can scan people’s brains when they’re doing art,” Shealy said. “They were scanning people when they were even thinking about creativity and then when they were actually doing it. Parts of the brain that light up during meditation also light up when we’re deep in the flow process, so it’s a self-soothing thing that happens when we create art.”
When viewing art, parts of the brain related to the reward system of our bodies  activate, according to research conducted by specialists at Emory University School of Medicine.
Breathing patterns also emerge as a prevalent method of expressive therapy when related to the relationship of muscles and emotions, recent studies show.
Neuroscience research concludes the power of simple breathing patterns can regulate emotions. The Alba Emoting technique, an exercise that allows people to access and control emotions, benefits actors and those seeking catharsis through drama therapy, according to Bond, a certified instructor.
“It’s a scientifically proven method for evoking and managing emotions based in breath patterns and muscle triggers,” Bond said. “It’s about breath and muscle work, and not mining through your exhaustive emotional past to bring that up, and it’s not abstract where we say, ‘Dance around the room until you feel these emotions.’”
Aspects in our lives and our environment trigger emotional responses in the brain as they align or disrupt our personal goals, according to a study on emotional regulation by researcher James Gross of Stanford University.
Gross defines the practice of regulating emotion as the procedure used to evaluate and express their emotions verbally, mentally and physically.
“By sharing my poetry when I was on-stage at my most vulnerable, I open the door for other people who are present in the room to come to me and share their own stories and for us to just feel less alone for a moment,” Payne said.
Participants of drama therapy and performance programs report a deeper self-awareness to those around them, according to a study by psychologists at the South African Journal of Psychology.
“(Expressive therapy) is about giving yourself permission to explore, and just being surprised at whatever comes out, not attaching, which is really hard because we all have expectations,” Shealy said. “Adults cut it off. We don’t play, we don’t let ourselves do these things because art has to be for kids, but art is for all of us. This creative process is for all of us.”