Art Therapy Ideas for Substance Abuse

paint cans

While substance abuse disorders themselves are a physical dependence on drugs or alcohol, these problems often stem from underlying mental health problems and can bleed into several areas of a person’s life.

In order for a person to find lasting recovery from a substance abuse disorder, their treatment plan should take all of these factors into account. Art therapy is one effective tool used in some treatment programs that can promote comprehensive healing for those in recovery for a drug or alcohol addiction.

Art Therapy & Addiction

Sometimes words fail us and it can be hard to articulate emotions or fears. Art therapy is a form of therapy that uses the creative process to help people explore their emotions. The goal of art therapy is to make people more aware of their feelings and give them an alternative way of working through them to promote better mental health.

Because mental health and addiction are often connected, art therapy ideas for substance abuse specifically focus on helping patients address their underlying emotions that may be contributing to their addiction and, in some cases, making their substance abuse worse. Using a variety of art therapy group ideas for addiction, patients, under the supervision and guidance of a trained art therapist, are able to use creative outlets and mediums to connect with their deepest emotions in a therapeutic way. Especially when patients are hesitant to open up verbally with their therapist, art therapy helps them to express themselves in a nonverbal way. Art therapy has been shown to help break down a patient’s walls, promote emotional healing, and even improve a patient’s communication skills.1 In order to see the best results art therapy should be used as one small part of an inpatient or outpatient program.

Recovery Art Therapy Ideas & Techniques

Art therapy is about more than just painting a pretty picture. Trained therapists will use different substance abuse art therapy techniques during their group or individual sessions to boost the healing process and see the best results for their patients.

  • Gestalt methods. This method focuses on processing the present moment, without burdens of past feelings or experiences. Using Gestalt principles, patients can draw out their feelings. Gestalt art therapy is highly effective in uncovering past trauma and initiating the healing process.2
  • The third hand. This technique of art therapy for substance abuse involves the therapist working in conjunction with the patient. The therapist works with the patient to create the finished product, gaining a better understanding of the patient along the way. This art therapy method is crucial when therapy first begins and the bond between therapist and patient is not yet there.3
  • Association through art. Everyone derives a degree of emotion from most art. This approach to therapy helps patients pinpoint emotions through interpreting or creating art.

Art Therapy Ideas for Substance Abuse Groups

Along with the different techniques used to induce healing, there are various art therapy ideas for substance abuse that utilize different mediums. At our rehab center in Chicago, we encourage patients to engage in these various creative outlets throughout their recovery journey.

Some ways to incorporate creativity and art into your addiction recovery journey include:

  • Journaling – Journaling has been proven to help reduce stress, manage anxiety, and lower depression.4
  • Listening to classical music – Classical music makes people more emotionally available and helps relieve anxiety.5
  • Drawing, painting, or molding something out of clay- These three art mediums have also been proven to help people deal with a traumatic event in their life.6
  • Dancing – Some studies have found that “dancing your feelings” can help people who struggle with mental illness.7
  • Singing- Singing in a group can help people maintain or improve their mental health, especially for people with mental health problems like anxiety and depression.8
  • Playing an instrument- Playing an instrument can not only have cognitive benefits, but also decrease stress, a large trigger for people with a mental health or substance abuse problem. Group music lessons have the added benefit of promoting socializing.9
  • Create a collage- Visual art such as making collages can help people focus on positive life experiences, enhance self-worth, strengthen identity, and promote emotional expression.6
  • Write a letter- Many recovering addicts struggle with how they hurt people when they were addicted. If they cannot find the words to apologize aloud, writing a letter can help them express the feelings that they may not be ready to say face to face to their loved ones. It may also help them learn more about their true feelings.

If you are not working with an art therapist, you can still use these art therapy activities for substance abuse on your own. Do not be afraid to get creative as well. There is no wrong way to do art. The important thing is that the form of art you choose leaves you feeling better.

At Banyan Treatment Centers Chicago, we believe that art can be an effective means of helping some people heal and recover. We offer various programs and addiction therapies in Chicago, including a variety of substance abuse art therapy activities to give our patients a comprehensive approach to recovery. This holistic approach to treatment gives each patient their greatest chance of finding lasting success in their sobriety journey.

To begin your treatment at Banyan Chicago or to learn more about how we may be able to help your loved one, call us today at 888-280-4763.


  1. - Outcome Studies on the Efficacy of Art Therapy: A Review of Findings
  2. Psychology Today - Cool Art Therapy Intervention #5: Show Me How You Feel Today
  3. Psych Central - 5 Quick Facts about Art Therapy
  4. University of Rochester Medical Center - Journaling for Mental Health
  5. Reader’s Digest - 10 Wondrous Things That Happen to Your Body When You Listen to Classical Music
  6. NCBI - The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature
  7. BBC News - Dance therapy for mental patients
  8. Science Daily - How singing your heart out could make you happier
  9. NCBI - A Prescription for Music Lessons

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Alyssa is Banyan’s Director of Digital Marketing & Technology. After overcoming her own struggles with addiction, she began working in the treatment field in 2012. She graduated from Palm Beach State College in 2016 with additional education in Salesforce University programs. A part of the Banyan team since 2016, Alyssa brings over 5 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.