The Power of Expressive Arts

A Three-Part Process for Engaging the Body in Therapy

Cathy Malchiodi

The natural, bottom-up reparative process inherent in all forms of expressive arts therapy begins with expression of the body’s sensory and kinesthetic experiences as a foundation for the eventual exploration of emotions and personal narratives. With talk therapy, we tend to stay with narratives that only tap the higher brain through language. But by not engaging the senses, we ignore the healing potential of embodied somatosensory communication, which naturally relaxes the mind’s control and begins to tap a deeper level of implicit experience.

Even in most forms of art therapy, the tendency is to talk about an image from a top-down level, although the field has had a model for a bottom-up progression—the expressive therapies continuum (ETC)—since the late 1970s. Now, after all these years, therapists from all orientations have begun to recognize the value of working with their clients’ implicit, somatic-sensory experiences (lower brain) before tackling emotions (limbic brain) and narratives (higher brain). There’s enormous flexibility within this broad model, which can enhance a wide range of talk therapy approaches, but its full power only emerges when the expressive arts are incorporated to tap sensory and embodied experiences.

For example, I normally start a session with some form of movement, such as stretching, chair yoga, or just moving both sides of the body. To crystalize that sensory, kinesthetic experience, I often invite people to use colored pencils or oil pastels, saying, “Show me through colors, shapes, and lines what you’re feeling. Don’t worry about making it into ‘art.’ Just put something on paper. You can even just make marks on the paper with colors.” If a person is feeling relaxed, she might draw some wavy blue and green lines, or if still stressed, a series of orange and purple zigzags to indicate tension or energy. The benefit of drawing a feeling state makes tangible the essence of what’s experienced by the body when words may not capture it.

Moving to the next level of the process, I often suggest drawing the perception of that feeling in the body. To do this, I provide a simple outline of a body printed on a piece of paper and give a few prompts: “Can you show me where that feeling is in the body? If it feels like it’s outside the body, that’s okay. Just show me through colors, shapes, and lines what that looks like.”

So if the tension is in the gut, a person might draw those orange and purple zigzags in the belly area. Many people find themselves coloring the head, shoulders, chest, and belly, but others may just focus on mark-making in the extremities. This can be a way of expressing emotional numbness or dissociation. However, the point of this activity is not to place meaning on what’s drawn on the body image—it’s to begin to see what the body is revealing as a source of wisdom.

Finally, as an example of how to progress to the higher brain, I might ask, “What kind of story would that image tell me if it could talk? If it’s a worry, for example, what would that worry say?” By letting the image do the talking, this type of narration supports safety and establishes some distance in talking about difficult issues. For example, a young woman who suffered from traumatic stress from a sexual assault let her worry say, “I’m hiding deep in your body, ready to wreak havoc when you least expect it. I burn like a fire in your stomach. I love to make you squirm with nausea. Like a turbulent sea, I tumble and roll. I make sure you know when something is amiss, whether you like it or not.”

Allowing the body’s experience to talk often reveals how distress emerges when triggered by environmental cues. This young woman was surprised at how much her traumatic stress turned up in her gut as nausea and stomach pain. Although these reactions were often unbearable, she was able to realize that her body was trying to protect her from threat by getting her attention this way.

Not every client will get through all three levels of the ETC process in a session, or even several sessions. And some clients, if it feels safer for them, might be more comfortable starting with the narrative piece. What’s essential is that the individual can eventually access all three expressive levels. This is the three-part harmony that starts the flow of embodied intelligence and becomes the foundation of trauma reparation and integration via the arts.


This blog is excerpted from "Kindling the Spark" by Cathy Malchiodi, available in the March/April 2019 issue, The Missing Piece: Embracing a More Embodied Psychotherapy.

Click here for a short video where Cathy explains how you can incorporate the arts in your practice to help clients connect and express.


Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, is a psychologist and expressive arts therapist. Her newest book, Expressive Arts and Trauma: Expanding the Limits of Language, is in press with Guilford Publications. She writes the Arts and Health column for Psychology Today Online, with a following of 4.8 million readers


Get the latest issue of Psychotherapy Networker

Subscribe for a full year of clinical insight and creative inspiration from the field’s innovators like Brené Brown, Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel, Esther Perel, and many more. Plus, earn 2 CE hours every issue!

Topic: Creativity | Mind/Body

Tags: 2019 | Art Therapy | body | body psychotherapy | Cathy Malchiodi | child trauma | childhood traumas | clinical creativity | creative | creative counseling | creative counseling techniques | creative therapy | creativity | creativity in counseling | Dance | Mind/Body | movement | somatic counseling | somatic process | somatic therapies | Trauma | trauma and recovery | trauma recovery | veteran | veterans | vets

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 12:37:56 PM | posted by Tess Wyatt
Love it - had great fun having a go at the exercise