What Is Expressive Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 03, 2020

If you’re living with a condition like depression, anxiety, or recovering from trauma, you may have a hard time talking about how you feel. Expressive therapy through writing, art, music, drama, or dance could be a healing outlet.

How Expressive Therapy Works

This form of treatment uses creative activities to help you share and process feelings and memories that may be hard to put into words. It’s also called expressive arts therapy, art therapy, creative arts therapy, or experiential therapy.

This field began in the 1940s when psychologists started paying attention to their patients’ drawings. The sketches sometimes told them more about what a person was thinking or feeling than they learned from talking to that patient.

In an expressive therapy session, a trained therapist guides you through the process of expressing yourself through art. It’s usually a mix of different activities, but sometimes therapists focus on just one. For example, writing or keeping a journal might be better for someone who is new to therapy. If you’ve been in therapy for a while, you might be more interested in dance or drama. You can try expressive therapy by itself or along with talk therapy.

You don’t have to be “good” at the art form you use during your sessions. The focus of expressive therapy is the process itself, not the results.

Conditions It May Treat

Expressive therapy is an option for children and adults with different types of mental health concerns, including:


There are four main types of expressive therapy:

Music therapy. This treatment involves playing, singing, listening, or moving to music. Research has shown that it can ease anxiety. It may also lift mood.

Art therapy. You use painting, drawing, sculpting, or another art form to process or express heavy thoughts and emotions. One study of women with cancer found art therapy helped them focus on the more positive parts of their lives. It also boosted their confidence.

Dance therapy. Different types of dance or movement can help ease stress and anxiety. It may also improve your physical health. One study found it helped breast cancer survivors move better.

Writing therapy. Keeping a journal or writing poetry are two ways to practice this form of therapy. A few studies have found that it can help people with the stress and depression that can come with painful medical conditions, like fibromyalgia.

Talk to your doctor or therapist if you’d like to try expressive arts therapy. They can help you decide what might work for you.

Show Sources


University of New Hampshire: “Expressive Arts.”

GoodTherapy: “Expressive Arts Therapy.”

American Music Therapy Association: “What is Music Therapy.”

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: “Music therapy for depression.”

American Art Therapy Association: “About the American Art Therapy Association.” 

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