Art Therapy: A Creative Method to Express Emotion

This edition of the blog series on alternative and holistic methods to complement traditional talk therapy comes to you during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Although many of my clients (and I, too) struggle with body image and feeling body positive, I do not have specialized training in helping clients with eating disorders. 

However, my guest today, Elizabeth Hlavek, LCPAT, ATR-BCdoes have that specialized training and experience. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Art Therapist and a Board Certified Art Therapist practicing in Annapolis. I asked Elizabeth if she would agree to be interviewed about how art therapy can help people who are struggling with eating disorders and she graciously agreed. Art therapy is a "natural fit" for eating disorders work, as this blog post from Pershing-Turner Centers explains. 

Personally, I'm fascinated with art therapy. My mother is an artist (the images in this post are her work), so art has always been a part of my life and I enjoy cultivating my creativity - though I don't focus on this as much as I would like to. I use some creative techniques in my work with clients and plan to incorporate more as time goes by. In fact, next week I will begin attending a series of three trainings in using expressive arts techniques in work with survivors of trauma, and I'm elated to be able to bring the new methods I will learn back to my work with clients!

Read on below the image for my interview with Elizabeth. I found her responses to be very interesting and I hope you will too! 

  Original art by Beverly Furman, copyright Laura Reagan LCSW-C Psychotherapy Services, LLC 

Original art by Beverly Furman, copyright Laura Reagan LCSW-C Psychotherapy Services, LLC 

Tell me about your work. What is Art Therapy? How do you use it in helping people with Eating Disorders?

Art Therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the Art Therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. 

Often times, individuals struggling with eating disorders are rather guarded. Art therapy can allow these individuals to express themselves creatively, in a non-verbal format. Discussing artwork in session often brings up parallels between the work and the client's internal experience, and we can talk about their struggles through the metaphor of the artwork.

I also use the process of body tracing to challenge a client's distorted body image. I first have the client draw an outline of themselves on a life sized sheet of paper taped to the wall. Then, I trace them against it to get an accurate depiction of how much space they actually take up. Comparing the two can be a very intense experience, but is a concrete way for the client to see their body objectively. They have the option to further develop the tracing, identifying feelings, experiences and memories that are attached to their body, which is a way to bridge the gap between emotion and body image

What benefits does Art Therapy have? Are there any risks? Who is a good candidate for Art Therapy? Who should not participate in Art Therapy?

Art therapy is practiced in a variety of clinical, educational and community settings with diverse client populations in individual, couples, family and group therapy formats. Art therapy is an effective treatment for people experiencing developmental, medical, educational and social or psychological impairment. Trauma survivors, individuals with development disabilities and anyone experiencing extreme stress or emotional distress can benefit from art therapy. Art therapy helps people resolve conflicts, improve interpersonal skills, manage problematic behaviors, reduce negative stress, and achieve personal insight. And it can also be a lot of fun! 

Many people who come to me for therapy services are affected by trauma, anxiety and depression. How does Art Therapy help people with these issues?

Art therapy has become a staple in the treatment of a wide array of traumas, from child abuse to combat PTSD [WARNING: TRIGGER ALERT. THIS ARTICLE DESCRIBES COMBAT-RELATED TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES]. Art making can help individuals express dark emotions or memories that they may not be able to verbalize or even comprehend. Exploring intense emotion through art making can help the client process the feeling and heal. When trauma is experienced, it tends to be stored in the nonverbal part of the brain. Recent neuroscience research recognizes that the creative process involves both sides of the brain bridging cognitive and emotional functions leading to enhanced insight and behavioral changes. Art therapy also creates a feeling of well being, offers healthier coping skills and builds resiliency. I find that the process of art making helps to discharge anxiety, allowing the client to help relax and feel more calm. For depression, art therapy can allow for self expression and help to build self esteem. Making artwork, seeing your own creation, offers a sense of autonomy, which can be very empowering 

What else do you want people to know about yourself and the services you offer?

I'm passionate about my work. Art has always been a huge part of my identity, and so using it as a means of healing is very comfortable for me. I see clients both as a primary therapist and in collaboration with talk therapists. 

Most of my clients prefer a mix of art therapy and traditional psychotherapy. I specialize in eating disorders and PTSD, and am an in network provider with BCBS. I am a huge advocate for Art Therapy and helped develop the first clinical license for art therapists in Maryland. I currently sit on the MD Board of Professional Counselors and Therapists. 

Elizabeth is a Licensed Clinical Professional Art Therapist and Board Certified Art Therapist in Annapolis, Maryland. She spent four years working in an eating disorders hospital program, working with individuals in inpatient, partial outpatient and intensive outpatient (IOP) levels of care. For more information, or to contact her, please visit

Art Therapy for Expressing Emotions 2

Thanks so much to Elizabeth! I hope you learned something new about art therapy, eating disorders, or both - I did! If you want more information about National Eating Disorders Awareness Week or Eating Disorders in general, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website. If you're in the Annapolis area and you think Elizabeth might be a good fit for you, check out her website!

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Thanks for reading. Did you learn anything? Please share your thoughts in the comments below


Alexander, C. (n.d.) Behind the mask: Revealing the trauma of war. Retrieved from:

Bechtel, A. (2012, February 22). Retrieved from: 

Burgard, D. (n.d.). A body positive approach. Retrieved from:

National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d.) About #NED Awareness Week. Retrieved from: 

Schwartz, D. (2014, March 21). Expressive arts therapy and eating disordersRetrieved from: