Expressive Arts Therapy and Eating Disorders

By: 
Dr. Deah Schwartz

I like to talk. To anyone who knows me, this is not news.  From the time I was in elementary school, to my parent’s dismay, my report cards consistently informed them that I needed to stop talking so much in class.   Some may say that I talk too much, others may say that I am hyper-verbal.  Any way you frame it, the bottom line is, I am a very chatty person.  Being verbally outgoing has its advantages.  I meet wonderful people in strange situations where if I wasn’t comfortable initiating a conversation, I never would have made their acquaintance. I learn a great deal from others because I ask questions and engage in dialogue.  And as a public speaker I am at ease with being put on the spot and answering questions extemporaneously.  I’m a talker and it works for me most of the time.  One exception, however, is in the context of therapy.  Let me explain.

In therapy, I have found that talkers, like myself, have the tendency to use words to over-intellectualize the situations being addressed in the session. Why is this not always the most productive thing, you may be asking?  It’s good to be able to explain your feelings, make connections, describe scenarios to your therapist.  Isn’t it?  Absolutely, except that sometimes the talking keeps a person firmly planted inside their head and detached from their feelings and their body.

This is one of the reasons that I believe incorporating Expressive Arts Therapy along with verbal Psychotherapy can be extraordinarily helpful in attaining a more integrated sense of self. 

Expressive Arts or Creative Arts Therapy is a multi-modality approach to treating a wide array of diagnoses. The E. A. Therapist engages the client in sessions that employ art, music, movement, drama, filmmaking, storytelling, or writing in order to facilitate healing, improve quality of life, and address treatment goals and objectives in the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical domains.  But why can Expressive Arts Therapy be an exceptionally good fit for addressing eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and body image?

Sometimes, the more we intellectualize through talk, the more the split between our thoughts and feelings widens.  When we shift to a more “right brain,” creative approach and engage in art, movement, drama, etc. the door opens for client to shift from explaining their feelings to actually feeling them.  In that moment there is a tangible body experience of how feelings affect them, and a safe place to explore ways to manage those feelings. 

The quest for perfection and control are feelings often shared by people with an eating disorder or body dissatisfaction.  Trying to live up to an unattainable ideal of beauty, trying to please others, and judging oneself primarily based on physical appearance are persistent driving forces that lead to disordered eating.  But, because the primary focus of Creative Arts Therapy is on the process of creation and NOT the final product, the goal is for the client to learn how to appreciate who they are in the moment, explore reasons for their behaviors, and establish new barometers for self-acceptance.  From day one in my sessions, I explain that in Expressive Arts Therapies there is no right or wrong in what you create. No one is judging you based on any standardized measure of talent, beauty, or success.  In fact, it is a space where there is respect and admiration for individuality, and each person is given permission to explore what qualities make them unique. 

Obviously, I could talk at length on the subject and it’s probably a good thing that I was given a word limit when I was asked to contribute a guest blog post.  So, I will close with this example of how Expressive Arts can access information from a different source than traditional therapy.  If you it in a circle with a group of people and ask the question, “what is most important to you?”  Typically, people will hesitate and then give superficial answers .  But if you try passing around an interesting key and ask, “If this was a key to anything what would it be a key to?”  There is a less stilted outpouring of information that will provide you with insight and access to the person’s priorities, wishes, concerns, or fears.  The visual cue and metaphor of the key unlocks a creative process which often taps into a deeper subconscious awareness that may be missed when merely asking direct questions.

Before closing I need to be clear that I am NOT saying that Psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral or Dialectical Behavioral Therapies are ineffective in treating Eating Disorders and related Body Image Disorders. Indeed there have been many studies proving otherwise.  What I am saying is that a multi-modality approach offers additional opportunities for facilitating change and healing that involve the whole person; body, mind, and spirit.

Dr. Deah Schwartz, Educator and Clinician, with a private practice in Oakland CA, has more than 30 years of experience in using Expressive Arts Therapies to treat Eating Disorders and Body Image issues. Deah is the author of Dr. Deah’s Calmanac:  Your Interactive Monthly Guide for Cultivating a Positive Body Image and co-author of Leftovers, The Ups and Downs of a Compulsive Eater DVD/Workbook Set.  To find out more about Dr. Deah’s work visit her website at www.drdeah.com 

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