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The Role of Art and Music Therapy in Addiction Recovery


The Role of Art and Music Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Eva Wu

Please enjoy this guest blog post by Michelle Peterson of Recovery Pride! To learn more about Recovery Pride, click here to visit their website. We look forward to more of your contributions, Michelle! - The NIF Team


The Role of Art and Music Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Substance abuse professionals have long incorporated a variety of methods into recovery treatment plans. Much emphasis is placed on evidence-based practices, such as pharmacological treatments and behavioral therapies as primary methods, and for good reason. There is considerable scientific research and testing of these evidence-based practices. However, a patient may not respond to these primary treatments, and other, less traditional tactics may be necessary as an enhancement. Art and music therapies have grown to be less scientific but still accepted practices as expressive therapies or complementary and alternative medical practices.

How Art and Music Can Help

Artistic expression, whether through visual or musical creation or appreciation, touches people in their core. Music affects mood. A visit to the art museum can bring a wide range of feelings. Proponents of expressive therapies argue that having a sense of purpose, achievement, positive relationships, and engagement are all crucial to well-being. For many, artistic expression checks all of those boxes.

Treatment centers and practitioners have recognized the power of creativity and appreciation, incorporating both art and music into their programs. A study from 2014 showed that 36 percent of U.S. treatment centers had incorporated art therapy into their programs, while 14 percent offered music therapy. The study noted the increase in popularity in complementary and alternative medical practices, such as art and music therapy, and suggested a relationship between the therapy and recovery success in women and adolescents.

Painting a Path to Recovery

Visual arts seem to be particularly effective, possibly because they are so accessible as therapeutic exercises. Most patients can pick up a paintbrush and put something on the canvas; talent is not required to make art. Physically, artistic expression connects us to our emotions. It is a tangible way to reconcile emotional conflicts. This connection can help fill the void that drugs and alcohol leave in a substance abuser.

As The Treehouse explains, “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.”

Recovery as Music to the Ears

Music can have a similar effect for those suffering with addiction and has been used as a component of physical health since the 1700s.  As a therapy, music has moved into the mental health field over the past century. Music has long been a part of the human experience. Every culture has its musical traditions, and every generation can be partially defined by its popular music. What is as emotional as the national anthem, a rousing orchestral maneuver, or a triumphant celebratory pop tune?  Music can relax or annoy as well. Its ability to trigger emotions is key to a patient’s ability to access those emotions as part of treatment. And, like painting, creating music can positively affect mood as well. One study of dementia patients brightened moods of the participants by having them create their own orchestra.

Incorporating Art and Music Into Treatment

One of the major benefits of both art and music therapies is that they are generally cheap and noninvasive. As a treatment provider, you risk that some patients will resist the treatment—maybe they have a low level of interest in general or are apprehensive about expressing themselves. But many respond to art and music therapies given the fact that these therapies are refreshingly different than the perceived negatives of traditional treatment. For those patients, viewing art may be their exposure to the therapy, and maybe that will be sufficient to elicit a connection to emotions.

Keep in mind, too, that these expressive therapies are meant as enhancements. They help patients open up to other therapies. They might not work for everyone, but for many, expression can open windows into emotions, and tapping into this can be helpful in addressing underlying causes of addiction.

Photo Credit: Pexels