Psychological health

4 Functions of Expressive Arts Therapy

© 2022 Cathy Malchiodi Ph.D. Presentation slide Four Functions of Expressive Art Therapy.

Source: Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D.

Expressive approaches make use of a variety of compensatory factors including implicit communication, active participation, and sensory-based experiences. Expressive arts therapy, by definition, is an integrative psychotherapy process that includes movement, sound, enactment, imaging, storytelling, imagination, and play. One way to decipher how this approach works is through its four main and most general functions. These are self-regulation, co-regulation, exploration, and restoration (Malchiodi, 2022). These form a continuum of general goals in therapy, starting with the regulation of the mind and body through the practice and testing of sense-based experiences and aligning with the practitioner to establish safety, trust, and confidence. They are the foundations for expanding the ability to explore during treatment and ultimately experience self-recovery.


Stability and establishing a sense of safety are goals of psychotherapy for most individuals. self-regulation It is a term used not only to describe the ability to manage one’s responses to stress, but also the ability to calm and calm the body and mind. It is the ability to moderate feelings, bodily responses, and cognition.

Many of the art forms used in the expressive art therapy series have good evidence of how they support emotional self-calming as well as measurable physiological changes that lead to stress reduction (Malchiodi, 2020). The sensory-sensory qualities of movement, execution, visual representation, tactile, and sound naturally involve active participation of the body as opposed to only speaking styles. In particular, these traits are likely to be mediated by lower brain functions such as heart rate and breathing through specific methods. The primary function of rhythm found in all arts is also key to physiological regulation. It is a source of stability that supports an inner sense of security. For many individuals, listening to focused music and calming sounds or playing instruments with calming tones is part of reducing hyperactivity; The rhythm of the voice while singing or playing has a similar effect. Similarly, when withdrawal or separation are salient reactions, rhythm-based experiences can safely help the individual explore what is energizing or energizing, establishing and anchoring the person in the “here and now”.


co-organization It is often defined as responsive interactions that provide support, reflection, and harmony. In order to achieve this, it requires therapists to pay close attention to the individual’s cues of stability and sensitivity. In psychotherapy, it is based on the changing social interactions between the therapist and the individual over time. Like an inner sense of security, it is well documented that healthy communication early in life between a caregiver and an infant is essential in shaping an individual’s ability to self-regulate throughout life.

While the term co-regulation began as a way to describe caregiver support for infants, it is now used to describe organizational support that occurs in the context of lifelong caring relationships. In expressive arts therapy, co-organizational interactions based on the arts are fundamental. In general, co-organization is less dependent on words and is perceptually specific to the characteristics of each expressive art form. For example, experiences based on art and play emphasize interaction mostly through the tactile, visual, and kinesthetic senses. Music includes sound, musical performances, vocalizations, social engagement, and rhythm-based experiences that can be shared curatorial. Psychodrama, improvisation, and enactment offer multi-sensory ways to create co-organization through role-play, modeling, reflection, and execution.

Co-organization, a form of cross-organization, is something found in the collective expressive arts experiences. Simultaneously moving in a group, singing together, participating in an improv band, or dramatizing with others are all social experiences that stimulate shared organizational moments. Several expressive experiences are designed to help participants “pick each other’s rhythms” and begin to synchronize their movements even when drawing to music.

Reflection and blocking are two primary methods used to support co-regulation. Reflection is a commonly used approach to establishing and strengthening the relationship between an individual and a co-professional. Within expressive arts therapy, it is generally described as the embodiment or reflection of an individual’s movement or nonverbal communication. The goal of reflection is not only to imitate postures, facial expressions and gestures, but also to include harmony between the individual and the practitioner. The overall goal of reflexology in the form of movement is to help individuals experience their bodies in a safe way as the basis for any additional self-regulating experiences.

Entrainment, also called rhythmic synchrony, is a second expressive arts approach that can support co-organization and co-organization. Attraction occurs when the tempo of one experience coincides with the tempo of another. For example, babies hear their first rhythm in the womb as they listen to their mothers’ heartbeats; The natural way to calm babies is to rock, rock, or tap to the rhythm of their resting heart rate. In expressive arts therapy, heartbeat, motor activity, and brain activity can fall into synchronized rhythms through the therapist’s voice and through sensory experiences that match the resting heart rate (60 to 80 beats per minute), slowed down, or speeded up and activate individuals .


Word exploration It generally refers to the movement of travel in or through an unfamiliar area to be identified. It can also mean a deep examination of a particular topic or topic. These two experiences form the core of any form of psychotherapy, but exploration goes beyond modern expressive arts therapy. It engages individuals to “travel in unfamiliar territories” through implicit communication and self-examination through multi-level and integrative experiences. Active exploration through the senses is a hallmark of most expressive arts therapy sessions.

Because expressive arts therapy is an action-oriented form of psychotherapy, the organizational experiences described in the previous two sections support the necessary foundation for individuals to engage in expressive forms of communication safely and within their windows of ability. This includes supporting the ability to be improvisational, flexible and, in many cases, imaginative. It also includes relational moments that enhance and support trust, which is the foundation of all forms of healing.

Exploration is part of a child’s normal development. It is also an experience that may be disrupted during early childhood by trauma, loss, physical illness, attachment problems, or inability to access conditions that support play or social participation. These disturbances and other factors may replace the healthy curiosity necessary for playful exploration with protective reactions resulting from a lack of safety. As a result, the ability to explore may not be available. When an individual is experiencing adversity in early childhood, exploration may focus on scanning for danger in the environment. In these cases, expressive art therapy can reintroduce experiences to support curiosity by engaging in practical, action-oriented, and attuned moments.


In expressive arts therapy, the goal is to facilitate eventual self-recovery through arts-based approaches focused on the senses. That is, to support the individual, family or group in restoring wholeness, well-being, resilience and self-efficacy. Perhaps the most compelling reason for the use of expressive arts in psychotherapy is the sensual nature of the arts themselves, a restorative agent not found only in speech therapies. In recent years, neurobiologists have taught us that we need to “come back to our senses” in developing effective psychotherapy ingredients for both mind and body (Malchiodi, 2020). For example, many practitioners now agree that traumatic stress reactions are not just a series of distressing thoughts and feelings. These reactions are experienced on a sensory level by the mind and body, and for recovery to occur, engaging with the senses is key.

I believe that expressive arts therapy has a unique role in restoring a sense of vitality and joy because life is not something to ‘talk to’. We don’t know the exact mechanisms of why this happens or even how to accurately measure these restorative moments. Perhaps for now we can only describe recovery as something beyond making sense and reconnecting with vitality, vitality, and emotion. Ultimately, when expression—whether through image, movement, sound, legislation, story, or play—becomes an affirmation of life.

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