Art Therapy for Addiction

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Art therapy for addiction is a modality that has become more prevalent in rehab centers as addiction treatment programs have shifted toward a more holistic approach.1 Holistic treatment addresses the spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional aspects of wellbeing simultaneously. Holistic therapy, which can include components like art therapy, helps people in recovery use evidenced-based treatment to achieve better outcomes in recovery.2

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy, or art psychotherapy, was developed by Adrian Hill in the 1940s and has become more broadly used over time. 3 Hill initially used art therapy to overcome a personal battle with tuberculosis, where his use of painting and drawing helped him emotionally cope during his recovery.3

Margaret Naumburg was the first therapist to use art therapy for diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. In 1969, Naumburg introduced a graduate program at New York University that is one of the most highly accredited art therapy programs today.4

Naumburg used art to bring unconscious feelings to the surface. She used art to help clients recognize and work through interpersonal conflicts. Naumburg asserted that the client should be the one to interpret the meaning of the art, not the therapist.4

The two artists used art therapy differently but beneficially. For Hill, art was therapy, and for Naumburg, therapy was in art. Art therapy grew with these two complementary approaches, and artistic creation became a standard core tool between the therapist and the client.3

Art therapy doesn’t focus on artistic perfection, either in technique or result, but instead aims to promote self-awareness and personal change through creative expression.3

Art therapy is an excellent tool for people in addiction recovery who have experienced trauma, illness, or life challenges. Using art materials in the creative process provides a safe space to build coping skills and heal.3

How Is Art Therapy Used in Addiction Treatment?

Art therapy for addiction treatment offers a hands-on experience, which is intended to complement the healing process started in individual therapy and group therapy.5

Trained art therapists working in addiction treatment centers understand the unique needs of those seeking treatment and can apply their therapy techniques to your specific addiction recovery needs.5

Art therapists working in the addictions field may focus on specific areas of need for recovery, including:5

  • Discovering a deeper sense of self
  • Understanding your emotions
  • Building self-confidence
  • Learning self-expression
  • Developing impulse control and emotional regulation

Each of these points is seamlessly woven together through your artistic creation. You may not notice yourself learning these skills as you create, but your therapist will be there to guide you, helping you understand how the process relates to your recovery.5

How Does Art Therapy for Addiction Work?

When you are in addiction recovery, you may struggle to verbally and emotionally express yourself. For many individuals, complex emotions arise during addiction treatment. This can occur because substance use inhibited your ability to fully experience your emotions.6

Yet, continuing the road to recovery means working to process and manage those difficult feelings in a healthy way, without drugs.

Art therapy is an outlet for those unspoken and hidden emotions, as it works on multiple levels, each of which provides a safe space for working toward sobriety. These levels follow.5

Facilitating Expression

Through the use of art materials and your creative expression, your art therapist will guide you to express emotions that may have previously been buried. If you struggle with verbal communication, either overall or particularly with your thoughts and feelings, this aspect of art therapy may prove highly beneficial for your recovery needs.5

Artistic creation opens a space for you to express your emotions freely. As you start communicating your needs to others during recovery, you will learn to protect yourself and start feeling heard.5

Art therapy provides a space where you are free to bring your inner struggles to a safe place in this world, where you are newly aware of hidden feelings that may harm your overall wellbeing and possibly contribute to your addiction.5

As you express yourself through art creation, your therapist can guide you to greater emotional awareness. Soon you begin to express your emotions concretely, enabling you and your therapist to see and feel them.5

Protecting Defenses

Many people defend their addictions and related behaviors when starting addiction treatment. This defense mechanism is commonly used to protect unspoken emotional pain and self-esteem.6

Yet, by defending harmful actions, a person remains at risk of continuing self-destructive behaviors of addiction, risking a difficult road to recovery. Through your art therapy sessions, your art therapist will allow you unrestricted creation time, where your art can speak for you.5

Processing defenses through art allows the artwork to be viewed as protection for a person’s defenses. This occurs as a client and therapist understand the deeper meaning of the work, but focus on discussing objects in the artwork rather than directly confronting a person’s ego.5

This indirect approach removes the threat from the artistic creation, working to help you let down your defenses.5

Providing Containment

Many recovering people hide their shame, anguish, pain, rage, and other challenging emotions. Those in recovery often struggle to understand their feelings and healthily process emotions.5 Working toward understanding one’s feelings and healthily processing them can improve recovery outcomes.5

At the same time, art is a contained place to expose a person’s true feelings, as emotions are put into a person’s artistic creation, rather than processed and managed in an unhealthy and potentially damaging way. 5 For example, processing frustration and anger through art can help you avoid arguments and hurt feelings between you and people you love.

An art therapist works with clients to help them identify those raw emotions and begin processing them through healthy outlets.5

What Are the Benefits of Art Therapy?

Art therapy complements addiction treatment, individual, and group therapy. Art therapy is often made available during the rehab treatment programs offering these other evidence-based modalities.6

Benefits of art therapy may include:3,5,7,8

  • It may be offered as a separate therapy when it’s not available during an inpatient treatment program.
  • Insights gained from art therapy can be shared with counselors or with your recovery community to help you get more from these services.
  • Art therapy can increase self-esteem and raise self-awareness as a person learns to healthily process emotions.
  • Art therapy is shown to help individuals with addiction process trauma and heal.
  • Art therapy can encourage a spiritual connection as a foundation for sober living for individuals who identify with a spiritual belief system.
  • Art therapy is associated with positive experiences during addiction treatment and positive long-term recovery outcomes.

Who Offers Art Therapy?

Rehab centers may offer a range of holistic interventions, including art therapy. A holistic approach can help establish a solid foundation for long-term sobriety.2

If you feel that your recovery may benefit from art therapy techniques, you can begin your treatment search by looking at rehabilitation centers that offer art therapy. You can find rehab centers with art therapy by search by service through your insurance carrier, asking for referrals from your current providers, or look for the service listed on the center’s website. You can also call prospective treatment centers to ask about art therapy and other holistic treatments they offer.

If you need help finding a rehab center with art therapy, please call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) at any time.


  1. Aletraris, L., Paino, M., Edmond, M. B., Roman, P. M., & Bride, B. E. (2014). The Use of Art and Music Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment Programs. Journal of Addictions Nursing, 25(4), 190–196.
  2. Molfenter, T., Capoccia, V. A., Boyle, M. G., & Sherbeck, C. K. (2012, May 02). The readiness of addiction treatment agencies for health care reform. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 7(1), 1-8.
  3. Edwards, D. (2013). Art Therapy. United Kingdom: SAGE Publications.
  4. Good Therapy. (2016, July 06). Margaret Naumburg (1890-1983).
  5. Mahony, J. & Waller, D. (Ed.) Treatment of Addiction: Current Issues for Arts Therapists. (2002). United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
  6. Elster, J. (2009). Strong feelings: emotion, addiction, and human behavior. United States: MIT Press.
  7. Feen-Calllgan, H. (2013, December 26). The Use of Art Therapy in Treatment Programs to Promote Spiritual Recovery from Addiction. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 12(1), 46-50.
  8. Hanes, M. J. (2007). “Face-to-face” with addiction: the spontaneous production of self-portraits in art therapy. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 24(1), 33-36.
Hannah Sumpter MSW
Hannah Sumpter, MSW, BA
Case Manager, Therapist, Author
Hannah Sumpter, MSW, holds a Bachelor's degree in Theology, as well as a Master’s degree in Social Work, with an emphasis in Mental Health. She has combined both degrees to work in the addictions field for over ten years, both as a case manager and therapist. Throughout her professional experience, she has grown in her passion for serving those with an addiction, as she is able