Art Therapy to Heal Trauma

Written by: Susan Summers, Licensed Professional Counselor & Licensed Clinical Addictions Counselor

Too Scared to Face the Pain?  There is a Gentler Route to Healing Trauma.

Can you speak with your hands? If you are involved in art therapy you can.  Contrary to what some may believe, art therapy doesn’t require great skill, or any skill, as an artist in order for you the benefit from the practice of it.  It can involve drawing, creative writing, painting, collage, clay, sculpture, or any form of art that one would like to try. Art therapists often have to explain that it is not art education, and that it’s also not just for children.  It can be utilized with anyone of any age and any skill level.

Many people have experienced that the process of making art, even without processing it with a therapist, can be stress-reducing.  In fact, it’s been shown that creating art allows the individual to get into the “flow” or alpha brain wave state which is the same relaxed state achieved in meditation.  I experienced this “flow” one afternoon when I spent hours in a dark room developing film. (Yes, I’m that old that I existed way back in the time when taking a photo required film!)  I got lost in the creative process. I found the process very effectively took my conscious mind away from its normal awareness of place, time and stressors going on in my life. My mind was energized and creatively at work, while also amazingly at peace.  I had lost such a grasp of the time that I was shocked when I left and it was late and pitch dark out. It was a wonderful “escape” for the time it lasted.

However, the art therapy process can be so much more than simply another way to relax or enter the “flow” state.  Art therapy has been successfully used with survivors of trauma, veterans, those with eating disorders and disturbances of body image, survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault, prison inmates, children with developmental disabilities, clients with medical issues (such as chronic pain), the elderly (including those with Alzheimer’s and dementia), those who simply want to learn more about themselves, and individuals with any type of mental, emotional or behavioral issue.  The process of art therapy can be utilized along with psychotherapy (talk therapy), or used alone to address the client’s needs. The art therapist is only limited by their own imagination in the number of possible ways art therapy can be applied to the client’s needs.

Contrary to what some would think, the artistic creation is not judged according to its perceived beauty or level of creativity, but instead is studied by the client and therapist together for any insights the client might learn from the symbolism of their creation or from the art-making process.  The act of creating art for its own sake, without interpretation, can be very helpful in aiding the client in releasing repressed emotion. Margaret Naumburg, the “grandmother” of art therapy, began writing about art therapy back in 1923. (So art therapy is not some new, unstudied form of therapy).  She believed that the practice of expressing oneself in artwork enabled unconscious feelings to be identified in the artwork even prior to one’s conscious recognition of the feeling. (Naumburg, M., 1973) In my own practice I have found this to be true. The creative process helps clients gain insights into why they have the feelings they do, or behave as they do in certain situations, as well as point towards the direction to take for further healing.  I can still recall the images of, and lessons learned from, art therapy exercises I completed several decades even though I no longer have the artwork. Visual images are very powerful teachers that “stick with you” over time and are not easily forgotten.

Another facet of art therapy that is often misunderstood is that the art therapist is very careful to not project their own interpretation of the client’s creation onto the client’s artwork, but instead allow the client to do their own interpreting and then the therapist can use the artwork as a springboard to discuss important subjects that arise in the artwork.  It’s vital for the therapist to allow each individual client to interpret their own creation, because their internal experiences and their interpretation may be very unique and different from that of the therapist. Each person’s artwork is as unique as the individual.

People who have undergone trauma and who engage in art therapy along with psychotherapy have been shown to have higher levels of recovery from PTSD than those who engage in talk therapy alone.  This is thought to be due to the fact that making art fosters feelings of control and power that the trauma had stolen from them.  Bessel Van der Kolk, renowned psychiatrist who has researched and developed effective treatments for traumatic stress says in regards to the expressive therapies, “The Capacity of art, music, and dance to circumvent the speechlessness that comes with terror may be one reason they are used as trauma treatments in cultures around the world.” (Van der Kolk, 2014)

Brain research has shown that trauma is stored in a nonverbal area of the brain.  However, the part of the brain that is in charge of verbal expression shuts down during a traumatic event, as well as later on when the person is reminded of, or triggered, to recall the trauma.  Not to mention that talking about a traumatic event can be very difficult and triggering. Thus it is critical to be able to access the nonverbal memories in a way that feels safe. Art therapy provides this safe route of expression for many people, sometimes without the client even having to use words.  Yet, the process also can lead the client to a deeper understanding of their own experience, as in “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Trauma-informed expressive art therapy is based on the idea that art expression is helpful in reconnecting implicit (sensory) and explicit (declarative) memories of trauma, and in the treatment of PTSD (Malchiodi, 2012).  It is also known to help clients with PTSD to develop the skills to regulate their emotions as well as balance and control their body’s physical reactions to the traumatic memory.

It is known in the world of psychotherapy that it is necessary for survivors of trauma to be able to express their emotions and core beliefs about what happened to them, to have the assistance of a therapist to help them work through them in a healthy way, and to ultimately be able to re-create or re-tell their painful experience in a new way, one that re-defines it as something more positive and growth-oriented.  Art work is a very vivid and effective way of telling one’s “story”. An example of re-creating one’s trauma story is one man who identified his cancer diagnosis as his “eye-opener” or “cherish every moment” experience. Others have learned to identify the trauma that happened to them as what ultimately strengthened them in the broken places, brought them great wisdom, and even motivated and allowed them to in turn become healers that help other survivors experience healing.  The process of addressing trauma takes great courage and patience. Take a positive step for yourself and allow art therapy to ease the pain and difficulty of that process.

Bibliography

Malchiodi, C. (2012).  Art therapy and the brain.  In C. Malchiodi (ed.), Handbook of Art Therapy.  New York: Guilford Press.

Naumburg, M. (1973). An Introduction to Art Therapy: Studies of the “Free” Art Expression of Behavior Problem Children and Adolescents as a Means of Diagnosis and Therapy.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.

1 thought on “Art Therapy to Heal Trauma

  1. Thanks for explaining how art therapy could help heal trauma. It’s interesting to learn that this process can actually be utilized along with psychotherapy. Maybe it could be good to learn what other types of therapies can work together, especially if it can help a client get the help they need.

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