Art Therapist Q&A: The Benefits Of Art Therapy In Eating Disorder Recovery

BALANCE eating disorder treatment center is dedicated to treating the spectrum of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, compulsive overeating and other disordered eating behaviors and body image issues. At BALANCE we employ a diversity of treatment modalities to help clients develop a neutral and peaceful relationship with food, body acceptance and positive self-esteem. 

Our programs incorporate relational psychotherapy, behavioral therapies (CBT, DBT), experiential therapies (including art therapy, drama therapy , yoga therapy), meal support and family therapy groups.

Art therapy is often one of our clients favorite parts of programming. Maggie Ritnour, LMHC, LCAT, ATR-BC, RYT is the resident art therapist at BALANCE. Her background is in art; she received her BFA from SVA in Manhattan (where she also completed a certificate program in art therapy), then got her masters in psychology from Antioch University Seattle. The letters after her name signify that she is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor,  Licensed Creative Arts Therapist, a Board Certified Registered Art Therapist and Registered Yoga Teacher. Movement has always been a big part in Maggie's life and she considers body awareness and movement in her therapy sessions.

Here is a Q&A with Maggie highlighting exactly what art therapy is, how it aids those in eating disorder recovery and what makes it so unique!

What is art therapy? 

I define art therapy as the amalgam of art and psychology. Sometimes a person doesn't have words for their feelings. Art offers another way to express and visualize what is going on. Plus, art can be fun and playful. It is helpful to have moments of levity in treatment. 

What programs include this group at BALANCE? 

There are art therapy groups in both our eating disorder Day Treatment Program and Intensive Outpatient Program.

Frequency of this group in program(s)?

Art therapy group occurs once a week for DTP (Wednesday mornings)  and once a week for IOP (Monday evenings).

What exactly is done in art therapy group, what would clients expect? 

Art therapy groups usually take place in BALANCE's dining room, which gets transformed to an area that welcomes art and mess-making (there is a drop cloth that's put over the table and art supplies are brought out).

What are the benefits of art therapy when it comes to eating disorder recovery? 

There are so many! Benefits of art therapy for those in recovery from eating disorders include, but are not limited to: building confidence in one's visual voice and building skill with various art mediums, practicing the importance of risk-taking and the act of embracing mistakes, being seen by others in a way that is nonverbal (this is key because behaviors of disordered eating often become the language of communication; offering an alternative to speaking words to express is integral!). Plus, finding new ways to have fun. Again, making art can be enjoyable. In life and recovery it is necessary to find pleasurable activities in which to spend time. 

What are the main goals of group? 

Main goals entail: growing confidence with art materials; expressing self with alternative modalities; cultivating a creative language with personal meaning; increasing focus on process, not product; and making mistakes.

What are some examples of previous topics/projects?

1) Body with an Eating Disorder and Body without an Eating Disorder - Clients were invited to draw imagery that depicted their body with ED and body without ED. Encouraged to use figurative body while also keeping in mind perspective of body image and not necessarily true body size, shape, appearance. Themes of feeling isolated, having to perform or being judged by outside world, while recognizing this often comes from internal place of critical ED voice. In this way, clients were able to imagine self without ED.

2) Round Robin- The group was given large butcher paper with an assortment of 2D supplies. Members were allotted 8-minutes per section to draw in the area in front of them, after 8-minutes they moved along to the next area and were invited to add to the artwork started by the previous artist. Continuing in this fashion, clients added to each the group's collective artwork, and eventually returned to the beginning. All were encouraged to be playful and curious in their approach.

3) Emotion Squares- Group members are given packets containing a various emotion squares pre-written onto individual pieces of paper. There was time to draw then discuss similarities and differences between seen/created by group members.

What makes art therapy so unique? 

Art therapy offers a tangible reference to the intangible experience of emotions. Also, it can serve as a way to track progress. By looking over art completed during time spent in treatment, one can literally see change. For example, one client reported hating art therapy her first couple groups. Yes, she said she hated it (and that's ok because art is uncomfortable for a lot of people who have been raised to think of art only being worth something if it's seen in a gallery, in a book, or they were told it is "good"). By the end of her time in treatment at BALANCE, she found not only a willingness to engage in art but a new method of relaxation and meditation using a new medium. Art can do that. In this way, art becomes a metaphor for other change to occur. 

Also, going back to the thought of "good" art, art therapy offers a space to practice alternative vocabulary and a new language, instead of using broad brush, subjective statements like "good" and "pretty". This is so important with eating disorder recovery because often people are using similar statements about their food and bodies. Making a conscious effort to use objective language with art (for example "I see more page usage." or "I like all those details."), promotes this happening in other areas of life too! 

Emily Costa