Creative Therapies in Eating Disorder Treatment

As an adjunct to traditional therapies, creative arts can be very soothing and beneficial to clients. Some treatment programs use music and dance therapy, as well as art therapy, to encourage clients to access feelings and parts of themselves they may have difficulty expressing in words. Art therapy is used regularly at Center for Discovery centers, and some client artwork remains onsite to inspire current residents to tap into their creativity.

Evidence of Efficacy?

According to an article in Science of Eating Disorders, there is very little research on the efficacy of arts-based therapies in eating disorder treatment.

The author of the article found one piece of literature from 2006 that discovered 30 articles on art, music, and dance therapies for eating disorders. With the lack of research and written information, these creative treatment modalities often must speak for themselves. Think of a client who’s made very little progress in groups or talk therapy, but has been able to express herself freely by painting. As she becomes more comfortable expressing herself creatively she gains confidence and may be able to begin to open up more verbally with her treatment team.

Music Therapy

The articles found that music used in a therapeutic way was beneficial to clients struggling with anxiety. Specifically, music was used to facilitate relaxation during meditation and also to soothe anxiety at meal times. Some clients also used music as part of their cognitive behavioral therapy to help them create songs that challenged thought distortions.

Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT)

DMT is used to help clients reconnect with their bodies. Since body image distortions can be one of the most difficult eating disorder symptoms to alleviate, it is important to incorporate body work into treatment. Many clinicians use body tracings and mirror work to help clients overcome body image distortions. DMT can involve relaxation exercises, videotaping body movements for reflection purposes, or mirroring the movements of others. These exercises can help the client experience more unity between body and mind.

Creative Arts Therapy (CAT)

An umbrella term that encompasses drawing, painting, sculpture, and drama/role-playing work, CAT is widely used and helps clients develop insight. Role-playing can be especially helpful with younger clients who can benefit from acting out their thoughts and feelings to encourage the development of insight into the illness.

A Widely-Used Treatment Modality

Survey results from the literature report that 26% of the residential programs surveyed had daily arts therapy, with 99.38% attendance. Of these programs, 17 offered an average of 2.8 hours of arts therapy per week for each client.

Healing programs that use creative therapies in eating disorder treatment do so to give clients an alternative outlet and encourage the following insights:

  • Self-discovery
  • Addressing body image, self esteem, and depression
  • Development of positive coping skills
  • Providing an alternative path to wellness for clients that do not respond well to traditional therapy

Used in conjunction with therapy, nutrition, medical care, and group work, arts therapy can be a great way for clients to express themselves in a non-threatening, soothing way.


The Art of Therapy: Using Arts-Based Therapies in Eating Disorder Treatment (2013). Science of Eating Disorders