Addiction to drugs or alcohol has many different roots. From childhood traumas to stress, depression, and PTSD, there are quite a few reasons people turn to substances, and everyone reacts to them differently. Because there are so many delicate factors involved, there are also many treatments available, including art therapy, which can afford those in recovery a chance to find a way to relieve those feelings with something creative.
Art therapy can also help the patient come to terms with past incidents and lessen shame, which is often a side effect to seeking help. And in most types of creative activity, there are few rules. The creation is entirely the artist’s own, from idea to execution.
Some of the ways people in recovery can express themselves creatively are:
Visual & Fine Art:
- Cut-paper art
- Playing an instrument
- Jewelry making
- Creative writing
While there are many more ways to be creative – all of which are personal to each individual – these are some of the best because of the ways the creator is forced to interact with their own bodies in some way.
Visual & Fine Art
Whether it’s watercolor, acrylic, or oils, painting is a wonderful way for those suffering with addiction to cope. Not only is painting a quiet, soothing activity, it allows an artist to bring out whatever emotions they’re dealing with onto the paper or canvas and leave it there. Because drugs and alcohol can dull a person’s emotions, painting can bring you back to yourself, little by little. According to the American Art Therapy Association, painting and other creative endeavors can foster self-awareness and self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and help a person develop and maintain social skills.
Painting can be a little overwhelming at first, as it takes a bit of practice to learn how the colors interact with one another. If you want to try it but aren’t quite ready to jump in with acrylics and canvas, you might give a coloring book a try. Crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors work beautifully with coloring books, and now there are a variety of books made specifically for adults who want to ease tension or anxiety.
Check with your local art supply store to see if they offer painting classes so you can familiarize yourself with the different mediums and the right types of brushes, techniques, and cleaning methods for them all. You can also check streaming services – such as Amazon and Netflix – to see if there are shows available that teach painting techniques.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to go outside of the home for inspiration. If you’re comfortable with it, take a walk to a local park armed with a travel kit of paints and paper and sit for a while, soaking in the atmosphere. Painting sunsets or landscapes may seem cliché, but it’s the simplest way to get started. Painting what you see or what you know can open up a floodgate of ideas.
Sculpting can be a wonderful, useful process for anyone coping with addiction. While it can be a bit messy, it’s a quiet, introspective activity that many find helpful when dealing with various issues. Because addiction often follows trauma of some kind, creating sculpture is one way to heal those underlying wounds while coping with substance abuse issues. One combat veteran who served in the Iraq War said that because he wasn’t comfortable talking to others about what he’d seen, he turned to sculpting instead.
“More than talking in a group or something or taking medication, making artwork’s been my therapy. Art saved my life,” said Jeffrey Stenbom.
Whether you work with clay, glass, paper, or wire, the first step is usually to sketch out your idea onto a piece of paper and work from there. It can be a little intimidating at first, but once you get the basic shapes down, you’ll start to see your idea come to life, which is extremely satisfying. You can find detailed instructions on how to begin your sculpture here.
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Drawing and sketching is one of the earliest forms of artistic expression. From cave paintings to the genius of Michelangelo, the ability to use a writing instrument to communicate and create has given the world some of the most beautiful, mysterious, and moving pieces of art. And while many people who have never attempted to draw before quickly write it off as something they can’t do, it’s important to remember that every artist felt that way at some point.
All of us have the ability to express ourselves on pen and paper; have you ever seen a small child not get excited over a clean piece of paper and a crayon? It’s as though we all have an innate talent and love for art hidden in the brain, and all it takes is the opportunity to let it out.
Over time, you can develop your skills and use the act of drawing to soothe anxiety and channel emotions rather than using a substance. Drawing is one of the most convenient forms of art because it can be done almost anywhere. It might be helpful to keep a small sketchbook in your purse or backpack to jot down any inspirations you might have while waiting at the doctor’s office or riding on the bus. You can also ask friends who are interested in drawing to meet up at a coffee shop or cafe for an art session, which is a great way to ease into socializing. This type of hangout is generally pressure-free, as you can simply focus on drawing most of the time if you’re uncomfortable with talking.
Another great aspect of drawing is the number of tools you can do it with. Pencils, pens, markers, crayons, colored pencils, charcoal, oil pastels, even your finger can all be used to create art. Art supply stores will have a wide variety of different types of paper, so it’s a good idea to try a few at first to see which ones you like best. All paper reacts differently to various mediums and they are all different weights – meaning thickness – so test out a few to get a feel for them.
Creating cut-paper art is time-consuming and requires a lot of patience and a steady hand, but the finished product can be extremely rewarding. For beginners, there are tons of ideas and templates to be found online, including on Pinterest.
Cutting intricate designs into paper requires quite a bit of focus and planning, because one wrong move can damage the idea. Once you get the hang of it, however, you can make incredibly beautiful pieces that you might even be able to sell.
Getting started can be as easy as making paper snowflakes, like the ones you used to do in elementary school. You can find tutorials on YouTube for a refresher. Once you’re comfortable with it, you can move on to smaller tools that will help you achieve those little details. A group of artists once made a stop-motion movie using cut-paper designs, and the result was gorgeous.
Dancing is an incredibly expressive art form that involves the entire body and requires focus and concentration. Being aware of our bodies and what they are capable of is something that some substance abuse patients need help with at first, says board-certified dance and movement therapist instructor Emma Barton.
Ballet, tap, hip-hop, and freestyle all allow the dancer to find new ways to express emotion, and because it’s a full-body experience, you’ll find the same rush of endorphins that you get after a good round of exercise.
One of the best benefits of dancing is that you can do it in the privacy of your own home (provided you have the space) or in a classroom setting, which can help you socialize. It’s also a great way to get in shape and learn about your own body’s abilities and limits in a healthy way.
Singing is something that many of us do without even thinking about it; in the car along with the radio, to our children, in the shower. But few people realize that they have a real talent because they’ve never stopped to listen to themselves before. Even if you’ve never seriously considered being musical but you enjoy it, the benefits are wonderful. Music can convey emotions that are difficult to get across with words, and many studies have been conducted that show the positive effects songs can have on people coping with addiction or emotional disorders. These include:
- Reducing stress levels and lowering blood pressure
- Improves communication abilities
- Improves concentration (usually fast-paced music)
- Boosts the immune system
- Helps in coping with physical pain
- Helps those in addiction recovery cope and find positive emotions
If singing isn’t for you but you still want the positive effects of music, you might consider songwriting, which can also be deeply therapeutic.
Playing An Instrument
Along those same lines, playing an instrument can be highly beneficial in coping with addiction. Whether you’re looking to learn guitar, drums, bass, violin, or ukulele, there are many ways to go about it, so it’s easy to fit into your schedule and comfort level.
There are various videos online that can give you step-by-step instruction when you’re starting out, or, if you feel comfortable doing so, check out local classes offered by colleges or private instructors. Just keep in mind that everyone learns at different speeds, and that learning an instrument takes time and lots and lots of practice.
Not everyone has a predisposition to acting, and many people in recovery don’t feel comfortable getting up in front of a large group of people. However, there’s something to be said about being able to take on a completely different persona, complete with a wig and costume, and lose yourself in another world for a bit.
Aside from that, it can be part of the healing process to take on a dramatic role that causes you to face your own past head-on. Working in the world of theater and drama can promote expressing feelings and making positive connections with others in a safe environment.
Cooking And Baking
Learning to cook delicious meals and desserts can be tremendously rewarding. Working with a group of ingredients to create a healthy, satisfying meal not only enables a person in recovery to learn or re-learn basic cooking skills, it also promotes patience, self-esteem, confidence, and creativity. Working with food is just as creative as painting or drawing; it’s just a matter of having a different medium.
Finding therapy in cooking and baking can also teach those in recovery the right way to take care of themselves; in some cases, addiction can ravage the body, and it is important to learn how to create healthy meals as well as what to stay away from, such as an excess of sugar.
“Once off the drugs, the brain craves the uber rewards of the hyperpalatables — Mint Milanos, Oreos, any sugar. An apple’s reward doesn’t cut it. So you end up with the transfer addiction. Off the cocaine, onto the cupcakes.” said Dr. Pamela Peeke, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland.
If you’re relatively new to cooking, it might be a good idea to scout out some good cookbooks first to find some recipes that sound easy. Books with big, colorful photos of the process and finished product are best so you know what to expect. You can also check online to see if there are any cooking classes available near you. Working in a classroom setting – where everyone starts on the same level – can be great for socializing and learning from others.
Like any art form, learning to sew takes patience and a lot of practice. Whether you want to make clothing or crocheting is more your style, there are plenty of books and tutorials online that will help you along the way. Once you get the hang of it, sewing can be an extremely relaxing activity and, at the end of it, you’ll have a finished product that can be of use! These include blankets, scarves, hats, clothing, kitchen towels, rugs, and curtains.
Many people sell their creations in online shops like Etsy, which is a great way to earn extra money once you figure out what it is you’d like to make.
Another relaxing and potentially profitable pastime, making jewelry is similar to the arts and crafts time that therapists recommend for patients healing from various types of illness and addiction. Making things can get you back in touch with yourself, allow you to come to terms with your emotions, and can help you focus and rebuild self-esteem.
Some of the methods you can use are:
Arts and crafts stores usually have large sections of jewelry-making supplies to choose from, as well as books and pamphlets on how to get started. You can also peruse Pinterest for ideas and inspiration.
Working with wood can be a large undertaking, but if you have the space to do it and the time to gather your supplies, it can be a very soothing activity. Depending on your skill level, you could make anything from boats to rocking chairs to sculpture.
As with any activity that requires tools, you’ll need to make sure you understand the basic processes and are comfortable with them before you get started, simply for safety’s sake. Check out this blog for simple projects to get you started, which include jewelry boxes, wall art, cell phone docks, and shelves.
You can make anything from simple tables to lazy Susans to coat racks, and the joy of putting hard work into a piece and watching it take form is hugely satisfying.
For people in recovery, keeping a journal is a wonderful way to deal with emotions, memories, and their own stories. Writing a little every day has been known for years to help with healing and to promote positive change, because not everyone who is on the road to recovery feels comfortable sharing their feelings with others. Sometimes, writing therapy is used in conjunction with talking to a trained counselor.
Sometimes, journaling leads to other forms of writing, such as poetry and short stories. This kind of expression can be extremely helpful for art therapy because it allows the writer to get in touch with emotions they either didn’t realize they had or were keeping suppressed, which can be a detriment to treatment.
If you’d like to try writing but feel blocked on where to begin, sometimes it helps to find an intriguing photograph or piece of art and start writing about it. You might be surprised at what comes out. Also, there are several websites that offer writing prompts either weekly or monthly and might be worth checking out if you feel comfortable sharing your work with others. Some offer the chance to submit anonymously if you prefer, and some will even pay you for your work.
Finding Healthy Ways to Channel Your Creative Energy
Moving away from addiction and into a healthier space is often a confusing, disorienting time in which many emotions can surface. No two people react the same way, so the fact that there are so many different types of art therapy is wonderful for counselors and therapists who want to try various methods. One of the greatest things about using art to cope with addiction, emotional issues, or trauma is that anyone of any age can utilize it.
It often takes a great deal of patience with yourself to figure out what works for you, and that’s okay. Learning what you’re capable of in a healthy, safe environment is one of the best ways to come back from substance abuse, and learning to channel your energies in a positive direction can only be a good thing.
It’s always a good idea to consult with a trusted health professional or therapist before taking on any new challenge, however, to make sure it won’t interfere with your continued wellness. Also, some therapists use different methods in conjunction with one another, so having their consent beforehand not only helps you, it helps them understand what works best for you in the long run.
As with any type of therapy, it’s important to keep in mind that the road may not be easy, and that certain methods may not be right for you. While art therapy is generally relaxing and helps stabilize moods and emotions, some will also stir up old memories and could be challenging to you. Because many substance abusers became addicted to drugs or alcohol in an effort to push away traumatizing memories, it’s important that you consult with a professional and take your time. Rushing therapy in an effort to speed up your recovery won’t work. Be patient with yourself, and allow yourself time to heal.