Therapeutic art-making: an adaption of the Pennebaker expressive writing model to assess the effectiveness of art-making as a therapeutic intervention

Henry, Jessica Lee
Landhuis, Erik
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Master of Arts in Human Services
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Auckland University of Technology

Introduction: Expressive therapies are commonly thought to benefit psychological and physical wellbeing. Pennebaker and Beall (1986) first demonstrated that emotional expression through writing may alleviate the adverse effects of stress and trauma. Another form of expressive therapy commonly cited is expressive art-making. Some posit that the visual medium of expression might be suited to those people who find verbal (or written) expression difficult. However, research into the efficacy art therapy is limited, both in terms of quality and quantity. This study adapted the methods commonly employed by the researchers investigating therapeutic writing.

Methods: Sixty university students were randomly assigned to one of three groups: an expressive-drawing group; a still-life comparison group; and a no-contact control group. Six drawing sessions were conducted over three weeks. Measures of physical and psychological wellbeing were completed at regular intervals over a university semester.

Results: No differences were found between groups on any of the measures of psychological wellbeing, with trends indicating that the expressive drawing group had higher levels of distress than those in the comparison groups. However, participants in the expressive-drawing group reported more days sick than those in the two comparison groups. These findings provide little evidence to suggest that the adapted ‘Pennebaker Paradigm’ benefitted the participants in this study. Furthermore, attrition was highest in the expressive-drawing group.

Conclusions: Results from this study suggest that the benefits of expressive therapies may be medium specific, and that the mechanisms for change differ depending on the medium. It is proposed that future research in art-making should include a focused reflection task, or be combined with expressive-writing tasks.

Art therapy , Expressive therapy
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