Creative Addiction Treatment: Using Creativity To Heal

Have you ever noticed how time and space blur together in those moments of pure concentration and bliss? When minutes become hours because you are utterly and completely absorbed in whatever it is you’re doing? Usually, this flow state occurs when we’re doing something creative: making music, writing, coloring, or even cuddling our pets.

When it comes to addiction, research shows that those who struggle with substance abuse often suffer from alexithymia, a condition where people find it hard to understand or describe their feelings and emotions and often turn to drugs or alcohol to calm and quiet their minds. Because many creative outlets do not require the use or even acknowledgement of words and speech, they can be powerful tools to utilize in addiction treatment. While not exclusive or exhaustive, the following list illustrates several different experiential modes of treatment that employ creativity as the main source for healing.

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Benefits Of Creative Movement Therapy

Unlike a typical dance class with pink tights, slicked buns, and floor to ceiling mirrors, dance/movement therapy takes a simplified, more wholesome understanding of what it means to move, to dance. In its rawest and most basic form, dance/movement therapy places a strong emphasis on the body and the knowledge it holds, forcing the individual to re-inhabit their bodies and all the “stuff”—good and bad—that comes with it. “At the start of a dance/movement therapy session, it is important to establish physical connection [as] a pathway to recovery that enables the restoration of self-awareness, a skill that is hindered through the use of drugs and alcohol,” one researcher wrote in 1997.

Because substance abuse of all forms disconnects the self from the body, dance/movement therapy can be very powerful in helping the client reconnect and reunite with themselves. By observing patients moving freely, therapists can identify patterns and gestures and assist when they notice anything problematic or potentially harmful, such as movements that restrict free flowing breath or those that are spatially unaware.

“Dance/movement therapy provides natural opportunities to identify a range of feelings and sources of pain, creatively move through themes of escape and ambivalence, and confront, tolerate, or manage discomfort. Patterned movement and gestures that arise in group can be interpreted as efforts to deny, desensitize, or displace unwanted experiences.”

- Kendra Kirane, American Journal of Dance Therapy, 2018


Encourages Mindfulness, Reduces Stress Hormones

Like dance and movement, yoga requires a certain level of presence and awareness in both the mind and body. With roots drawing back to India nearly 5,000 years ago, yoga has long been practiced as a way to improve overall life quality through a strong mind-body connection. Through various components like breathwork, poses or postures (“asana”), meditation, and more, yoga requires and cultivates mindfulness and when practiced regularly has the potential to influence and improve our bodies’ response to external stimuli like stress.

All substance addictions, in one way or another, impact the way the brain functions. Overall discomfort, anxiety, and stress are just a handful of the psychological side effects that often prohibit people from seeking addiction treatment. As such, yoga can be a powerful tool in combatting those negative feelings. According to Sat Bir Khalsa, a researcher and professor at Harvard Medical School, “Yoga is an alternative[;] a positive way to generate a change in consciousness that, instead of providing an escape, empowers people with the ability to access a peaceful, restorative inner state that integrates the mind, body, and spirit.”


Alternative Pathways For Dopamine Production

We tend to oversimplify or take for granted that which makes us feel the most alive inside. The feeling you get when you hear a new favorite song or when you finally master that challenging hand position required to produce a guitar chord. Music—both in the listening and creating—has been shown to elicit the “dopaminergic pathways in a similar manner as many illicit substances” which can, in turn, boost mood and lower cravings, according to the American Music Therapy Association, Inc. Additionally, listening to music can lower anxiety and promote relaxation by soothing the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs such responses as “fight or flight” when our senses are heightened.

By working with clients to get a whole picture of their listening habits, likes, and dislikes, the music therapist can create a plan that not only supports the client’s existing relationship with music, but also avoids any existing contraindications or triggers that might remind them of previous experiences that induce cravings. The assessment process before initial treatment begins differs based on clientele, therapist, and facility, but at a minimum “should assess the effects of substance misuse on the following domains of health: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.”


Creative Expression Through Art

Unlike writing or engaging with certain genres of music, art is creativity crafted, molded, and manipulated with your hands and imagination rather than engaging with any language. Similar to dance and yoga, art—be it painting, sculpting, drawing, or even coloring—does not require an attention to words, and as such encourages a dive into the subconscious mind.

When it comes to using art as a creative alternative to other, more clinical modes of treating addiction, it is important to note the difference between using art in therapy versus using art as therapy. The former emphasizes the end goal or product of the art-making session and is usually done without the presence of a therapist. The latter centralizes the creative process and what it can teach us about our tendencies, thoughts, and emotions while under the guidance of a therapist. With the pressure to articulate thoughts and feelings into words eliminated, those struggling with addiction are free to express themselves more freely. Outlining a few of the many ways creativity can improve life quality, Psychology Today says that “engaging in a creative activity can open a new channel for people to connect with their emotions. People who have experienced trauma and are not yet ready to talk about it may be able to describe their pain through art.”

Animal Assisted Therapy

When Companionship Yields Comfortability

There are few things more comforting than snuggling up to a beloved animal. As it turns out, there is a scientific reason for this. Rooted in the inherent bond and companionship found between human and animal, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) utilizes this connection to draw upon and foster a person’s self-esteem, caregiving skills, and overall empathy.

While still relatively new in the lexicon of scientific research, many studies have illustrated the myriad of benefits animal interaction yields. Besides providing us comfort and company in times of loneliness, research has shown that interacting with animals actually lowers cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in the brain as well as blood pressure. When it comes to using animals in treating addiction, one study noted that when animals are present, it is easier for some patients to become more involved in the overall therapy process, something that therapists treating addiction issues often have a hard time with.

“When an animal is included in the treatment, it helps introspection and internalization, increases confidence in the therapeutic environment, provides security and confidence in therapy, and motivates the patient to share their feelings.”

- Miguel Monfort Montolio & Javier Sancho-Pelluz, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2020

Other Alternatives

This list outlines only a handful of the many experiential, creative alternatives to traditional addiction treatment. Acupuncture, emphasizing mindfulness, spiritual connection, and other more holistic modalities all hold merit in their ability to treat addiction. By utilizing human nature and the power of creativity as opposed to medication and other forms of generalized, more clinical care, individuals dealing with substance abuse are recognized as unique and wholesome people rather than one of the many.

Many creative alternatives may benefit from being accompanied by more traditional methods of treatment such as talk therapy. Online therapy can often be a helpful medium for those already undergoing treatment, as it allows them to structure therapy around their existing schedules. For more information on online therapy options, check out some of the providers below.

Is Creative Treatment Right For Me?

If you or someone you love is struggling under the weight of an addiction and you’ve tried more traditional methods of treatment or are simply curious about creative modalities and what might work best for you, contact a treatment provider. Treatment plans need to reflect the individuality and uniqueness of the person suffering from addiction; reach out today to learn more and jumpstart your recovery journey, creatively, today.

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Hannah Zwemer

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  • Hannah Zwemer graduated with a BA in dance and a minor in educational studies from Denison University in 2017 before moving to Orlando to work as a performer at Walt Disney World. While at Disney, she discovered her passion for writing and pursued a master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction. She is passionate about helping people in any way she can while simultaneously sharing stories that remind us that the best of us are still only human.

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