The Art of Eating Disorder Recovery
The role of creativity and artistic expression in the recovery journey
There are a lot of considerations in recovery following discharge from the structured treatment environment.
Returning to the “real world” can feel challenging, and art may be the last thing on most alumni’s minds as they re-engage with family, relationships, work and school. However, creativity and artistic expression can play a meaningful role in the ongoing recovery process.
Eating Recovery Center Art Clinician Tamara Herl, LPC, ATR-BC, describes the therapeutic benefits of art in the recovery journey, and offers practical suggestions for how alumni can incorporate creative expression into their everyday lives. Read more on our website.
Q: How is art therapy beneficial to eating disorder recovery?
A: One of the goals of art therapy is to help people see things from a new perspective—we want to tap into a different part of the brain and allow people to express and explore thoughts and feelings beyond just using words. Creativity helps people examine how rigid their thinking is. Individuals with eating disorders can be black/white thinkers—even to the point that sometimes they will use black, white and grey to illustrate their thoughts and feelings. It’s really amazing to watch their progress as colors and abstract metaphor become visible in their artwork, which tells us that they are beginning to get a sense of a different or bigger picture.
Therapeutic art can also provide another perspective for responding to a stressor. For example, I recently worked with a patient who was really harsh in judging herself for having relapsed. Through her words, she was saying that having relapsed meant that she hadn’t made any progress in her recovery journey. Through her art, however, it was clear that a part of her realized she had made some progress. Her picture showed her how to view her growth in a different light and that it was possible to think differently about her recovery journey.
For patients who have experienced trauma of one kind or another, art therapy can be a powerful and less threatening way to explore thoughts and feelings related to traumatic experiences. Consider this— the borders of a sheet of paper offer symbolic containment of these traumatic feelings. Similarly, if a patient is too restrictive and controlled, art gives them the opportunity to break the boundaries of the page—scribbling off the page is a means for safely exploring outside the bounds of where they think they are “supposed” to be.
Q: What do you say to patients that identify as “not artistic” or “not creative”?
A: I hear that a lot, in part due to the perfectionistic nature of many eating disorder patients. Making art and participating in therapeutic art isn’t about creating something for a gallery or a museum. It’s just about putting something on paper (or clay or wood or video—whatever!) that captures the essence of what you’re feeling and thinking. Art therapy isn’t about precision or perfection—it is often abstract and rooted in metaphor. A great example of art as metaphor is this directive: “If anger had a color and a shape, what would that look like?” There is no wrong answer to that question. After some exposure to art therapy, even patients who were reluctant in the beginning will often say, “Making art was helpful because this was information that I knew before, but now I see things in a different way.”
Q: How can alumni incorporate art and creativity into everyday recovery?
A: I believe strongly in the benefit of art therapy in the structured treatment environment, and I also believe strongly in the therapeutic benefits of making art when patients return to their lives following discharge. Art can help alumni articulate feelings and view challenges and goals from a different perspective anywhere, anytime.
Below are several simple suggestions for integrating art and creativity into everyday recovery, today and into the future:
- Stock up on simple supplies. A journal, pens, pencils, watercolors, these items are common and accessible, and can be found almost anywhere. They don’t take up much space, so keep them in a drawer in your home or an on-the-go bag if you are inspired to make art while out in the world.
- Start an art journal. Carry it with you and use as needed, or commit to drawing, doodling or painting at regular intervals. Having all your art in a single place can help weave a story of recovery—over time, you can see what is similar and different in your artwork and think about what that means. It can also be motivating to look at your art journal on the hard days of recovery to remind you how far you’ve come. No entry is too simple—even a doodle can help manage anxiety and give an alternative perspective in the recovery journey.
- Use directives to guide your efforts. Directives (the theme of your art, ie. “Think about an important recovery value and illustrate what it means to you. In another part of the image, illustrate one concrete thing you can do to embody/live that value”) can help us to think about recovery basics like values, meaningful action, mindfulness and connection. If you’re struggling to find a good directive to guide your creativity, think back to the art therapy you did in treatment, and create a new piece with the same directive. You may be surprised at how similar—or different!—your artwork is based on your progressing stage of recovery.
- Or, just wing it! While directives can be helpful, sometimes it feels good to give your mind free reign to influence your art. Find a quiet place, be mindful, and let your art illustrate recovery.
- Take your time. Creativity doesn’t always occur when we hope it will or want it to. While it can be helpful to commit to making art at some regular interval (ie: once a week), allow yourself time to make each effort meaningful and impactful. If your inspiration or progress is slow, take a break and revisit the art at a later time.
- Don’t worry if it’s “good” or not. The goal of art in the recovery journey is creative expression, not creating something that will be on display. Try to quiet the perfectionistic voice that tells you that your art is “bad” or “stupid.” While the finished product might not sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, ALL therapeutic art can be helpful because of the underlying intention—ongoing mindful choices that lead you towards your values and support your eating disorder recovery.
- Share your work. Art can often communicate thoughts and feelings that your words cannot describe. Sharing your art with trusted loved ones or your clinician, and engaging in a discussion about how it illustrates your recovery challenges and victories can be powerful.
- Seek help if you need it. Sometimes creating an image on your own can evoke powerful emotions that you may not feel equipped to deal with. Seek help from an art clinician if this happens for you. You can find qualified art clinicians in your area at www.arttherapy.org.
Tamara Herl, LPC, ATR-BC
Licensed Professional Counselor,
Registered/Board Certified Art Clinician
For more information about artistic expression in the recovery journey, or to suggest an art-related alumni project or event, contact Pam Cleland, MS, LPC, Alumni Manager at Eating Recovery Center, at email@example.com.