Art Therapy in Eating Disorder Treatment

Art Therapy in Eating Disorder Treatment

By Timberline Knolls 

Art therapy is a form of treatment that can include a wide range of creative pursuits that are undertaken with the guidance and support of a trained professional. This type of care can be incorporated into a comprehensive treatment plan for people of all ages and genders who have been struggling with eating disorders and several other mental and behavioral health concerns.

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy can “foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, [and] reduce and resolve conflicts and distress.”

Drawing, painting, pottery, sculpture, and crafts are just a few examples of the many endeavors that can fall under the umbrella of art therapy.

“If you can dream it, we can help you make it,” said Susan Mericle, ATRBC, an art therapist at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center. “We’re going to help you find your creative voice and express it.”

In a July 2001 article in the Western Journal of Medicine, registered art therapist Shirley Riley wrote that art therapy benefits both the therapist and the person who is receiving treatment.

“The therapist gains greater knowledge of the problem because the client uses metaphor and narrative to explain the product,” Riley wrote. “The art allows clients to distance themselves from their own dilemma and, in that manner, work with the therapist toward alternative solutions to a problem.”

Riley’s article also noted that art therapy can be particularly effective for adolescents, who may initially be hesitant or unwilling to open up to an adult therapist in a traditional setting. During art therapy sessions, the adolescent patient’s attention will be focused not on a potentially uncomfortable conversation with an adult, but instead on a creative pursuit.

“Art therapy offers a nonthreatening way for teens to express their inner feelings,” Riley wrote.

As described by the AATA, art therapy “engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal articulation alone. Kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, and symbolic opportunities invite alternative modes of receptive and expressive communication, which can circumvent the limitations of language.”

Many people who struggle with eating disorders have a history of trauma. They may also experience feelings of shame or revulsion about their body shape, size, and weight. Art therapy sessions are safe and supportive places where people can address these and other painful experiences or emotions in a manner that doesn’t require them to put their thoughts into words.

Although nontherapeutic artistic endeavors are usually undertaken with the goal of producing a finished piece, art therapy within an eating disorder treatment program is focused more on process than product.

Art therapists may interact with participants during and after this process, providing guidance and asking questions related to the materials being used, the focus of the piece, and the emotions the participant experienced as they created their art.

This emphasis on process can also help alleviate participants’ fears that they are not talented enough to make art while promoting a sense of mindful presence. With proper support, art therapy participants can fully engage in the process of creation without judging themselves or assigning value to the perceived quality of their creation.

In the context of treatment for eating disorders, art therapy can help patients develop confidence, identify their innate strengths, and embrace a more promising outlook for the future.

“Often it’s what helps people connect with hope again,” Mericle said.