What is Creative Arts Therapy?

Creative Arts Therapy combines psychotherapeutic/counselling methods with creative expression, allowing participants to access their subconscious through imagery, dreams and metaphor. Children are already connected to this way of expressing, whereas adults have often forgotten the importance of this way of knowing, relying more on verbal expression and logic/reason to solve problems. For this reason, Creative Arts Therapy can be very effective at giving one’s inner child a voice, making it incredibly beneficial for healing childhood trauma or deeply repressed beliefs that can unknowingly affect your behaviours, feelings and thoughts in day-to-day life. It’s also of great benefit to those who feel stuck, those with anxiety/depression and those who find verbal expression challenging/limiting.

In New Zealand, Creative Arts Therapists in training undergo 750 supervised placement hours. Once qualified they are eligible for registration with ANZACATA. ANZACATA is the peak professional body representing creative arts therapists in Australia, New Zealand and the Asia/Pacific region. 

Creative Arts Therapy offers a range of arts modalities, offering a greater variety of sensory-safe means of expression. It embodies the knowing that all brains are different, and whilst uses any diagnosis as good information, does not follow the idea of these differences being ‘disorders’ or ‘wrong’. 

In particular, the large range of art-making tools can offer support to those who find verbal therapy unappealing or difficult, and also adjust for any sensory challenges or needs. 

When creating artworks using Creative Arts Therapy, one externalises their inner feelings. Through this process, one is able to safely look at traumatic events without needing to describe them in words. It also allows for safety by using stories or metaphors to explore and alter the past. This empowers the participant to taking back authorship of their life. It creates strong boundaries around stories of suffering whilst also letting them be seen.

As is often the case with childhood trauma, it is challenging to put these events from our past into words. This is because children do not yet have the language to comprehend, digest, or express trauma. Art making has the unique ability to look at things that cannot be explained, and release their hold over us.

As this process follows the heart, all actions made by the hand are seen to have purpose. This philosophy differs from traditional art classes where one is taught a technique that is to be followed. With Creative Arts Therapy, one creates like they did as a child. Children do what they feel, not what they think they should do. Any ‘mistakes’ or ‘wrong’ marks are an opportunity to adapt and change the piece. This becomes a metaphor for how we react in life when things do not go as we had planned. Often the greatest insights can come from these moments. It shows how embracing the flow in art-making can teach one to respond to the world with creative ease.

Myth 1 – ‘Artistic types’ are best suited to creative arts therapies

Creative arts therapies do not rely on artistic knowledge or ability. They work by accessing imagination and creativity – qualities which all human beings possess. These are used to generate new models of living and contribute to the development of a more integrated sense of self. 

Myth 2 – Creative arts therapies are without a scientific basis

Evidence-based and practice-based research is well-established in all the creative arts therapies. These include visual art therapy, dance and movement therapy, dramatherapy and music therapy. 

Myth 3 – The therapist interprets the work in an art therapy or creative arts therapy session 

Asking people to reflect on their own creative work is an important part of a creative arts therapy process. This is because it is understood that each individual brings their own cultural influences and personal experiences to their creative process. Client and therapist therefore work in a collaborative manner aimed at empowering the person to discover their own sense-making and to reach their fullest potential.


Art therapy (the first form of creative arts therapy where painting/drawing are the main modalities of art-making) has been around in some form since the dawn of psychoanalysis, and arguably even further as a form of communication and story-telling – i..e. cave paintings. However, it is seen as an alternative to talk therapy in Western culture, as talking has been the dominant form of expression. Art therapy now is one of the recommended treatments in Britain for PTSD and childhood trauma and is growing in recognition as an effective and powerful evidence-based, trauma informed practice worldwide. Creative arts therapy is an expansion of this therapy, encompassing other forms of therapies including, dramatherapy, dance therapy, movement therapy, phototherapy and music therapy under the umbrella term.

Healing one’s wounds can result from a number of factors, including lifestyle changes, community support, and self-work through things like creative arts therapy. Whilst therapy itself can offer no guarantees, I do notice clients leaving the sessions lighter with more clarity, focus and confidence, and with practical steps in place to improve their wellbeing/situation. From my own personal experience of doing creative arts therapy during my training, it has become a pillar to my wellbeing, giving me a voice that previously wasn’t strong enough with just verbal expression.

Creative Arts Therapy uses psychotherapeutic and counselling methods to ground the process. It is an experiential modality, meaning that it is something you really need to do before you know if it works for you or not. You will be guided through the whole process in your sessions for as long as you need this holding, but even so, these are your sessions, and we will work together on whatever works best for you. If the art making doesn’t appeal or if it is too overwhelming, we can just talk instead: there is no pressure to create.

Making the art is all about the process and less focused on the end product. What this means is that it’s more focused on the journey making art (and the meaning that this reveals for the you through this journey), rather than being focused on creating a beautiful, perfect and technically accurate/skilled art piece.

I find people ask me this question a lot when enquiring into creative arts therapy, as it’s often a barrier stopping them getting started. Let me reassure you: no artistic skill is needed for this method to work. In fact, it is easier if there is no preconceived idea of what the art should look like as it allows the subconscious mind to express without barriers one redirects from the conscious mind. It’s all about trusting the process. Each mark you make will lead you to the next mark – it’s not something you can plan in your mind beforehand. And if one art modality isn’t flowing, we can try something else. I’ve found that sculpture using natural materials to build an art piece is less intimidating than the blank page, and your hands then lead the whole process.

Creative Arts Therapy is a multi-modal practice, offering painting, photography, clay, pastels, music, writing, movement, drama, dance, and in fact anything that one can consider as a creative act. There are no limitations to what we can use together if it is what you are drawn to. We work to your needs, meaning that whatever art method is calling to you is what we will try. I may suggest options, but how you prefer to express yourself is up to you.

This therapy especially supports with non-verbal children and adults (i.e. on the autism spectrum) and those who find talking through problems challenging. It can also do healing without saying a single word. Just the act of creation is therapeutic in itself.

If you’ve exhausted your pros and cons list, try art making to see how you feel (i.e. using your intuition) about each choice subconsciously rather than relying on what you think you ‘should’ do and what your brain tells you that you can /can’t do. When your logical brain (left side) can’t understand why you are stuck, the art can give new insights by tapping into your emotional/creative brain (the right side). This helps to reconnect your left and right hemispheres, allowing you to see your decision more clearly, and to find the path to harmony. Some may feel that this process also allows for your intuitive side to be heard, showing a deeper wisdom away from the brain’s perceived limitations based on past stories.

Even just the process of getting feelings, emotions and problems out on the page can help you to see more clearly, to be less overwhelmed by the issue and to start seeing a way out. In other words, creative arts therapy creates new perspectives of your challenges, shedding new light on old stories, and helping to shift feelings of being stuck or trapped within yourself.

Often if we feel anxious, depressed, or have suicidal thoughts, these feelings can come from a place that our conscious brain doesn’t understand. Creative arts therapy can be especially effective in this situation for unpacking confusing and upsetting feelings that take over our life.

Even just the process of getting feelings, emotions and problems out on the page can help you to see more clearly, to be less overwhelmed by the issue and to start seeing a way out. In other words, creative arts therapy creates new perspectives of your challenges, shedding new light on old stories, and helping to shift feelings of being stuck or trapped within yourself.

By helping to form a clearer picture of the self/selves, creative arts therapy is particularly effective for those who need LGBTQ support. Together we can create images/sculptures of your identities showing how they relate to each other – helping to make sense of who you are in all your colours, rather than trying to be who you think you should be. We’ll work first creating safety, acceptance of who you are, and look to how this world can better fit your needs as the beautiful individual you are.

Often being in the present moment can be difficult for a lot of people in modern times. With the significant jump in technologies, we have constant companionship in the form of smart phones, tablets and laptops, making silence and empty space seem like a thing of the past. This has had devastating effects on our mental wellbeing, as well as our creative potential. Neuroscience is now telling us that this silence space without ‘doing’ anything is essential for our brains to digest information and to gain insight or new ideas. By filling up this space, we are left craving attention, rewards, and stimulation, fearing being alone with ourselves. Mindfulness is a wonderful practice that helps to support this, however, for some, it can be too overwhelming to do in the beginning.

Creative arts therapy supports mindfulness practice by being a bridge between the busy mind and the empty space. When creating art, it brings one into a state of peace, focus, and into the present moment. Clients report feeling in a meditative state whilst creating, switching off the thinking brain whilst in flow. This can allow the brain to rest, letting insights to flow and anxieties about the future to lessen. In the creating process, you’re not thinking about the past or worrying about the future – you are here and now, focusing on the simple act of putting brush to paper, or twig to clay. Let go and allow your body to take over.

There are no limits to how creative arts therapy can help people with all manner of mental, physical or spiritual challenges. It is simply a form of communication that is innate in all human beings, yet has been forgotten or not utilised in most – especially in western culture. Addiction, eating disorders, cancer, dementia, autism – each challenge presents its own set of needs and difficulties that are different with each individual person. What creative arts therapy allows is a new language to come through, one that may have been silent before, letting us be our full, somewhat complex, but phenomenal selves without limitation. And sometimes, that’s all we need to feel heard, accepted and free.

Each session costs $115 and lasts for one hour. Funding may also be available through WINZ, ACC, EAP services or if you’re under 25yrs, with I am Hope (Gumboot Friday). For more information on funding schemes to support affordability of creative arts therapy sessions, click here.

I recommend beginning with 3-6 sessions to really get a feel for the method, and to see how we fit together. If, after this, you no longer wish to continue, I won’t take offence – it is important to find the right modality and the right therapist for you.

What does a Creative Arts Therapy session look like?

Entering the arts therapy space is entering a space of complete acceptance for what is. In other words, without judgement we will mindfully create and witness, exploring what is present for you, noticing and nurturing what hurts and watering what brings joy. Your arts therapist is your guide, your travel buddy and your protector as we gently traverse the terrain of your past, present and hopeful future at your pace.

Using the arts as a means of communication, we’ll play with different mediums, focusing on the process of creation and how it feels rather than needing to create a final piece. Meaning and healing is found in the journey, as we allow a different part of you, your intuitive bodymind, to lead the way. No previous art-making training or practice is necessary in arts therapy, only a curiosity to let go and see what unfolds.

Heartwood Arts Therapy provides therapy in the Motueka Studio.