Capturing Feelings that Escape Our Lips: A Preliminary Analysis of the Effects of Brief Art Therapy on Service Members’ Expressed Emotions

Sarah Horwitz, BA

Massachusetts General Hospital – Research Assistant

Scientific Abstract

Background: Alexithymia, the inability to recognize or express one’s emotions, is a common presentation in military service members. Evidence suggests that expressive art therapy interventions, specifically mask work, can effectively increase service members’ emotional awareness. Home Base Program’s Intensive Clinical Program (ICP) provides a brief, intensive, multidisciplinary treatment for PTSD to service members and their families.

Methods: Service members completed a 105-minute expressive art group therapy session on the first day of the 2-week ICP at Home Base. Service members completed a measure of alexithymia before and after the intervention. Service members also completed a post-processing worksheet after the intervention, in which they elaborated on the symbols, themes, and artistic aspects of their masks.

Results: A majority of service members (72%) used emotion words (e.g., “shame,” “broken”) to describe the themes they incorporated in their masks. On average, service members used 2.72 emotion words in their descriptions. Inconsistent with our hypothesis, we found that there was not a significant difference in levels of alexithymia pre- and post-treatment, T= 125.5, p= .97.

Conclusions: While a significant increase in levels of alexithymia was not observed on a self-report measure, a vast majority of patients used emotion words in their mask descriptions. Mixed method analyses, therefore, may better capture participants’ emotional expression than quantitative measures of alexithymia. The preliminary results provide encouraging support for a holistic approach to treating PTSD, where art therapy can serve as an important supplement to traditional cognitive and emotional therapies.

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research Areas


Sarah Horwitz, BA, Molly Nadel, BA, Jacobita De Lourdes Munoz, Jennifer Kneeland, LMHC, Youngsuk Kim, PhD

Principal Investigator

Youngsuk Kim, PhD