Art therapy for eating disorders treatment

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In this article

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a form of experiential therapy used to treat eating disorders that incorporates elements of the visual arts, such as painting, drawing, and sculpting, with cognitive counseling. Creative expression can be an effective way to foster mental health and well-being when patients find it hard to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, particularly in the space of eating disorder treatment.

Forms of art therapy have been used for thousands of years. But the official term “art therapy” wasn’t used until 1942, when a British artist named Adrian Hill began connecting the beneficial effects of drawing and painting while he was recovering from tuberculosis. (1)

Indeed, many people may inadvertently—or intentionally—use art as a way to express or move past stressful feelings. But art therapy formalizes the process. Therapists often have a master’s degree or higher in art and counseling and will guide patients through a series of exercises meant to extract and explore deep-seated emotions.

Art therapy is also different from regular art classes. Traditional classes focus on improving technique or creating a particular piece, while art therapy is dedicated to creating a physical interpretation of inner feelings and is more introspective than regular art classes. And a patient doesn’t need any art background or training to practice or benefit from art therapy.

How to treat eating disorders with art therapy

It’s often said that artists are using their “right brain,” and, in many senses, this is true. The right side of the brain is more closely associated with imagination, intuition, and—most importantly, in this case—feelings. (2)

Channeling a person’s experience through these more emotional circuits is the primary goal of treating eating disorders with art therapy. 

How are eating disorders treated with art therapy?

Art therapy has been found to be a useful outlet for many people with eating disorders. It offers a medium to both connect to and convey the deeper feelings that might be driving the disorder, such as depression, powerlessness, rage, or loss.

Art can be used to express feelings that may be difficult to explain or even feelings a person may not consciously recognize are at play. By turning off the “conscious” brain and allowing the art to flow from a natural place, a person can tap into the deeper areas of the psyche where these underlying feelings live. (2) 

Trained therapists can help a patient analyze their creations, searching for themes or other markers of what’s going on with the patient psychologically. Further, identifying these root causes in a physical way can help people with eating disorders gain a different—and, hopefully, helpful—perspective, and give them access to a new vocabulary, both visual and verbal, to help explain or further understand their situation.

What to expect in art therapy?

Like many forms of therapy, the first few sessions of art therapy may focus more heavily on a patient’s background. The therapist may ask more specific questions about the patient’s experiences to get a better idea of where they’re coming from or what they’re dealing with.

From there, a number of artistic mediums can be used to further extract a patient’s feelings, including:

  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Collage
  • Focused doodling
  • The drawing method called zentangle 

Patients may also be asked to start a journaling routine, to help them incorporate and internalize everything they learn in their sessions. 

Therapists may give the patient a prompt to get the creative juices flowing or point their psyche in a certain direction. As the session progresses, the patient will be asked questions about their artistic process. Questions may include what they were thinking about or feeling while working, whether making the art triggered a change in their mood, or if the final product brings up any memories or immediate reactions.

When art therapy is used specifically to treat eating disorders, counselors may use more focused methods, like body tracing. In this exercise, a patient is asked to draw what they believe to be the shape of their body. The therapist will then trace the outlines of their actual body on the same paper, and the patient will be asked to talk about how this visual representation makes them feel.

Types of art therapy

Art therapy is based on a certain set of principles and practices. But, as with all types of therapy, the specifics of its sessions are tailored for the patient.

Patients can engage in art therapy on both an outpatient and inpatient basis. The sessions are typically one-on-one, but they can also sometimes take place in a group setting. Sessions can be held in a variety of locations, including:

  • Therapist offices
  • Wellness centers
  • Art studios
  • Community centers
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospitals
  • Senior centers
  • Virtually through an app

Art therapy also uses many different forms of art. Visual arts are most often associated with the term, but art therapy can also include: (3)

  • Dancing
  • Playing/listening to music
  • Role playing

These more physical versions of the method are typically called expressive arts therapy. (3) But like all forms of art therapy, the main goal is getting a patient to embody their feelings, rather than verbalize them. (2)

Evaluating art therapy as an effective eating disorder treatment

There are benefits and limitations to all types of therapy, including art therapy, when used to treat an eating disorder. 

What are the benefits of art therapy?

Creative expression has long been considered a way to improve mental well-being. When it’s used as an experiential form of therapy, some studies show art therapy can help patients learn how to tap into and adaptively manage their emotions. (4) This is a particularly helpful strategy for eating disorders, as they tend to be long-term conditions, often driven by emotional triggers. (2)

This method may also be especially helpful for patients who are particularly struggling with their disorder, unwilling or unable to explain their behavior. 

Art therapy can break down more traditional barriers that may present in verbal psychotherapy. There’s less room for a patient to use excuses, rationalizing, or other defense mechanisms that often prevent them from processing their emotions on a deeper level. (4) A patient may also be unable to access their emotions and memories, as many people who have eating disorders have experienced trauma of some kind and use food as a coping mechanism to numb painful emotions or avoid feeling them.

Tapping into alternative means of expression helps the patient tap into their “right brain,” which is much more closely associated with emotions. (2) This allows them to transition from explaining their feelings to actually feeling them, which can help create acknowledgement and understanding on a much more intrinsic level.

Anyone can try art therapy, regardless of age, background, or health condition. A patient doesn’t need any artistic background to enjoy or benefit from art therapy.

What are the limitations of art therapy?

Art therapy may help patients more effectively identify and manage their emotions. While that’s a large part of recovering from an eating disorder, it’s not everything.

Numerous other factors can—and often do—come into play with eating disorders. Social triggers and anxieties, as well as family dynamics, often play a huge role in either the establishment or perpetuation of an eating disorder. 

For a patient to recover from an eating disorder, it’s often considered essential to address these other issues with a team of care providers that may include nutritionists, therapists, or other medical professionals. 

Art therapy has a limited capacity to achieve this goal, despite its other benefits. Still, as with most types of therapy, art therapy is more likely to be successful when used in tandem with other therapeutic techniques.

Efficacy of art therapy in healing eating disorders

Another noted limitation of art therapy is the lack of evidence-based research behind its use for treating eating disorders. Studies on the subject are rare and have been on the smaller side when performed, though the psychiatry community has expressed interest in further investigating the subject. (4)

Still, there have been more general studies on the efficacy of art therapy for helping various mental health conditions. Two in particular, examining art therapy’s effect on patients with various psychiatric issues (2007) and depression (2019), found positive results stemming from the practice. (5) In each incident, patients underwent art therapy sessions for between eight to fifteen weeks. The results of each found art therapy to be “effective” for a majority of the group, although findings were vague. (5) 

Another broad review of studies on using art therapy to treat patients with anxiety, depression, and various phobias found that, of the fifteen randomized, controlled, quantitative studies—the industry gold standard—performed on the subject, ten of them found art therapy to be “effective,” when compared to patients in control groups. (5)

Art therapy is still a relatively new addition to the therapeutic pantheon, and much evidence-based research is still needed to address how and who it can best help. But many people struggling with eating disorders have found some form of solace in creative expression.

Art therapy at Within Health

At Within Health we use art therapy to help in treating people with eating disorders. We believe art therapy is an effective way for clients to explore elements they are struggling with in treatment, at their own pace.

Art therapy allows patients to tap into a part of themselves that isn’t necessarily the rational, or logical side of their brain, which allows them to express things just outside the level of their awareness. Many of our clinicians have experiences with patients experiencing breakthrough moments in art therapy that may not have been found through traditional talk therapy. If you would like to learn more about how art therapy plays a role in our virtual care treatment programs for eating disorders, call our team today.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

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