Sensory art therapy

Sensory art therapy is a type of treatment that uses all kinds of art (including music, visual art, and dance) to explore emotions, resolve psychological conflicts, reduce anxiety, as well as decrease physical pain. The creative and nonconventional process of sensory art therapy often elicits better results for individuals who suffer from chronic stress, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as those who have been diagnosed with learning/development disabilities.


Early yearsEdit

Margaret Namburg, Edith Kramer, Hanna Kwiatkowska and Elinor Ulman have been credited with being the pioneers of the field of sensory art therapy. While all of these scientists made significant contributions, Margaret Namburg has been hailed the "Mother of Art Therapy". Her work focused on the use of art, mainly as a psychoanalytic diagnostic tool. It followed closely other psychoanalytic practices of the time, and was viewed as the communication of unconscious ideas and emotions that were being expressed by the patient.[1]

Modern approachesEdit

Today's art therapy is broken down into three different approaches: psychodynamic, humanistic, learning and developmental. The psychodynamic approach uses terms such as "transference" and defense mechanism to describe why individuals express the art in the way they do, and why this is an expression of the subconscious. The humanistic approach is more of a positive psychology approach, and is defined by an optimistic view of humans, and how expression through their art allows them to take control over these emotions. The learning and developmental approach focuses on the art therapy as a method to assist children who have emotional and developmental disabilities.[2]


Many different types of art therapy have been developed over the years in order to combat different types of pain, anxiety or stressors in the lives of patients. Different techniques have also been developed to ensure that art therapy can help as many diverse people as possible.

Art therapyEdit

  • Art therapy is a technique that is utilized by many people and is by far the most popular therapy.
  • It consists of painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and other visual arts that are normally thought of as "traditional" forms of art.[3]
  • This type of therapy has been shown to be extremely beneficial for relieving stress, and the psychodynamic approach is often used, as the therapist uses the drawings or paintings of the individual to gain perspective on what is taking place in the subconscious.
  • The most empirical research has been done on this type of therapy, and it has yielded the most significant improvements in patients.[3]

Dance/movement therapyEdit

  • For over 75 years, this type of therapy has been used because many therapists view movement as the most important way to elicit therapeutic transformation. This therapy has been primarily used to explore and deal with early childhood relationships that may have been negative, and work to repair these relationships, as well as the negative effects they have had on the individual.[4]
  • Movement analyses such as the Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP) and the Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) have been used as a way to measure development and therapeutic success.
    • The KMP looks at tension-flow and shape flow rhythms, and has been used to explore mother-infant interactions.[4]
    • The LMA focuses on effort, direction, space and force.
  • Because of its ability to incorporate both motor and cognitive functions, dance has been hailed as one of the more useful and holistic approaches.[4]

Music therapyEdit

  • There are four types of musical therapy that are used: improvisation, re-creative, composition and receptive music experience.[5]
    • The first three (improvisation, re-creative and composition) require the patient to perform or play music.[5]
    • The last one (receptive music experience) involves a patient or client listening to music.
  • Music therapy has also been used to help patients with neurological developmental disorders.
  • These have been effect methods because of music's ability to evoke emotions, and researchers have found that music regulates emotions (
    • For instance, many songs elicit specific and strong emotions, and if the song is tied with a particularly traumatic memory, it helps the psychologist reach those memories and explore them with the patient.
  • It is a valuable tool when verbal communication isn't possible, for example with infants, patients with dementia, or severe developmental disorders.

Writing and acting therapyEdit

  • Writing therapy has been shown to reduce stress and improve health. Smyth (1998) did a case study on 13 writing therapy studies and found that overall, there was a 23% health advantage for writing groups in the study.[6]
  • One drawback with this technique is that participants reported higher anxiety and negative mood after writing, and some have stated that they think this negative effect can diminish the benefits of the therapy.[7]
  • Because acting forces an individual to impersonate a character, it forces a person to control not only their bodies, but their personality as well. This approach is seen as the most holistic type of sensory art therapy.[2]


  1. Self-discovery
    • This discovery often leads to a relief of emotional tension caused by past events, and can be used as a coping mechanism.[8]
  2. Empowerment
    • Art therapy gives individuals the ability to articulate their fears and stresses in a non-conventional way, and often leads to sense of control over these emotions.[8]
  3. Stress relief
    • Effective for stress relief by itself, but can provide even better results if paired with other relaxation devices such as guided imagery.[8]
  4. Physical pain relief and rehabilitation
    • Art therapy has been shown to help decrease pain in patients who are recovering from illness and injury. It has also been used in patients who are chronically or terminally ill, to provide relief and pain control.[8]

Empirical evidenceEdit

Ball (2002)Edit

Ball conducted long-term research on five children who were considered to be severely emotionally disturbed. These children participated in 50 art therapy sessions, and the results suggested that the art therapy was successful, and the children showed marked progress in their treatment over the course of the 50 sessions.[9]

Pifalo (2006)Edit

In this study, 41 girls or young women who had been sexually abused were given structured group art therapy for eight weeks, and were measured before treatment using the Briere's Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC). They were given the test again after the treatment, and for 9 out of 10 of the girls, a statistically significant reduction in scores on the test were observed.[10]

Bar-Sela, Atid, Danos, Gabay & Epelbaum (2007)Edit

This study worked with 60 adults who had cancer. These adults attended weekly individual art therapy, in addition to watercolor painting classes. After just four sessions, the experimental group saw marked and significant improvement in depression and fatigue, as measured by the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and a brief fatigue inventory. While they showed a decrease in depression, there was no significant difference in the levels of anxiety of the patients.[11]

Gusak (2006)Edit

In this study, the researcher worked with 29 incarcerated men. The men attended eight sessions of group art therapy, and were tested before and after the treatment using the Beck Depression Inventory Short Form. After the eight sessions, all of the men showed significant improvement in the symptoms of depression and their score on the Beck Depression Inventory reflected these improvements.[12]

Bulfone et al. (2009)Edit

In this study Bulfone et al. utilized music therapy as their treatment. 60 women who had been diagnosed with stage 1 or 2 breast cancer were randomly assigned to a control or experimental group. The control group received standard assistance before chemotherapy, while the experimental group had the chance to listen to music before the chemotherapy began. The results showed that the anxiety levels of the experimental group were significantly lower than those of the control group, and also showed a significantly lower level of depression.[13]


  1. ^ Malchiodi, Cathy (2003). Handbook of Art Therapy. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 8–10.
  2. ^ a b Mirabella, Giovanni (2015). "Is Art Therapy a Reliable Tool for Rehabilitating People Suffering from Brain/Mental Diseases?". The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 21 (4): 196–199. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0374. PMID 25848886.
  3. ^ a b "What is Art Therapy? | What Does an Art Therapist Do?". Art Therapy. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
  4. ^ a b c Houghton, Rebecca; Beebe, Beatrice (2016-12-01). "Dance/Movement Therapy: Learning to Look Through Video Microanalysis". American Journal of Dance Therapy. 38 (2): 334–357. doi:10.1007/s10465-016-9226-0. ISSN 0146-3721.
  5. ^ a b Bruscia, K. (1998). "Defining Music Therapy". Gilsum. 2nd.
  6. ^ Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression: effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables.
  7. ^ Pizarro, J. (2004). The efficacy of art and writing therapy: Increasing positive mental health outcomes and participant retention after exposure to traumatic experience. Art Therapy, 21(1), 5-12.
  8. ^ a b c d "Sensory art therapies". Retrieved 2017-05-10.
  9. ^ Ball, B. (2002). Moments of change in the art therapy process. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 29(2), 79–92.
  10. ^ Pifalo, T. (2006). Art therapy with sexually abused children and adolescents: Extended research study. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 23(4), 181–185.
  11. ^ Bar-Sela, G., Atid, L., Danos, S., Gabay, N., & Epelbaum, R. (2007). Art therapy improved depression and influenced fatigue levels in cancer patients on chemotherapy. Psycho- oncology, 16, 980–984.
  12. ^ Gussak, D. (2006). Effects of art therapy with prison inmates: A follow-up study. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33, 188–198.
  13. ^ Bulfone, Teresa; Quattrin, Rosanna (2009). "Effectiveness of Music Therapy for Anxiety Reduction in Women with Breast Cancer Chemother Treatment". Holist Nuts Pract. 4: 238–242.