Art and Trauma: Creativity As a Resiliency Factor

Chalk scribbles and hand holding chalkA perception of artists as eccentric, different, and living on the social periphery seems to precede this group outside of therapy and, likely, within the context of treatment as well. There seems to be an unspoken premise that ingenuity is motivated by pain or pathology, or at least some might argue there is a sort of affiliation. Some might assume that this relationship is causal: that trauma causes creativity and thus most artists are contending with some type of affliction. An alternative possibility may be that art is not necessarily motivated by pain; rather the capacity for creative inspiration is something that is brought into the recovery process by those who have such inclinations. In other words, some survivors who are able to express through art may have access to a recovery tool that others do not.

The explanation for eccentricity may serve those outside of the life of the creative in the collective search for continuity versus holding a truth for the individual. Cultural positions regarding gender, race, and other demographic variables have been acknowledged as significant in how therapy plays out as well as having a significant impact on people as they attempt to navigate their lives and define themselves. To postulate art as a product of illness likely has implications within the therapeutic context and thus may be worthy of evaluation. Regarding creative inspiration as a resiliency factor in the same way as personality traits, support systems, and solid attachment histories could be relevant in our approach with this population. The focus here will be in identifying the ways in which creativity can respond to trauma and mitigate its effects while simultaneously acting as a supportive tool.

Traumatic symptoms place significant demand on individuals’ emotional lives; the persistence and intensity of flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and other challenges can be unrelenting. Repeated images of disturbing aspects of events, difficulty relating to others, and emotional flooding are clearly something to be contended with for survivors. Distortions in reality such as feeling generally distrustful of others, feeling generally unsafe, or even varying degrees of psychosis are also indicators that integration of painful material has not occurred. Digestion and piecing together the historical puzzle are necessary components of feeling better. Access to creativity may assist in regulating affect while working towards making sense of trauma.

The drive to write or perform music or dance, act, paint, or draw seems to exist or not exist in someone. Perhaps to some extent it can be cultivated; however it appears we all come to the table with our own idiosyncratic gifts. Creative motivation is often described as an illusive and illogical propellant that tends not to yield financial and social gain. The reward seems to be internal and is related not only to the product (i.e. a painting, story, piece of music) but to the process. Engagement in developing something creative (much like I am attempting to do now) can have a dissociative feel; there is a disconnect from reality and a hyperfocus that is quite distinctive (I refer to this as the creative stupor). There is an openness in the process, a permission to explore the unspoken, to be childlike, and to express with depth and abandonment.

The intersection of painful events and the creative process either in the context of therapy or outside of it can be salubrious in that both the art and the person benefit.

Barriers in discussing dark, shameful, or disturbing information can be softened with creativity; in fact it seems to be a conduit for undigested material. The juxtaposition of style and history may influence the artistic product, but the experience of engaging with art is most relevant to this topic. It appears to facilitate a connection to the extreme, which is what characterizes traumatic injury. The disengagement from reality while simultaneously connecting to experience may offer a unique means of working through unprocessed material. Additionally, themes presented in the artistic product may provide insight to both therapist and client as to where the focus of the work belongs or where the individual is stuck.

Explanations for phenomena logically influence our response to them. Defining the creative process or artistic product as a function of pathology likely effects the cultural response to art as well as the therapeutic context. The identification of those within this demographic as having a unique tool to inform us as their clinician as well as to aid in their process could foster a dynamic shift in the work we do. Conceptually, eccentricities in people, whether it be through art, a mathematical gift, or idiosyncratic ways of thinking could all be potential resiliency factors. This doesn’t imply that we assume our clients should use their gift therapeutically, rather that we maintain curiosity and openness to it while allowing it to inform our work.

Related articles:
Healing Through Expressive Arts Therapy
Shadow Work: Transforming Emotional Suffering into Freedom
Reasons why Trauma Treatment & Recovery might Be a Bad Idea

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Athena H. Phillips, MSW, LCSW, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • andie


    March 7th, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    Being creative, whether through writing or art or music, is an awesome way to channel some of the hurt in your life and turn it intp something meaningful, something that not only will speak to the world about your pain but also to allow you to release some of that inner tension that said pain will create.

    I know this as this is my own outlet, my own way to process those painful experiences that have happened to me in my life.

    But the creative outlet allows this pain to come out in a way that is not hurtful, that keeps me grounded in my present and which can hopefully one day speak to another and help them perhaps get to a point where they are able to express and do the same.

  • Clinton Power

    Clinton Power

    March 7th, 2012 at 3:16 PM

    I agree that art can be a wonderful medium for being able to access shameful, disturbing and dark areas of a person’s psyche, but in a wonderfully gentle and creative way.

    I believe we are all creative in one way or another. Art therapy allows us to access our own creativity and turn painful experiences into poetic expressions of our true selves.

  • Hale


    March 7th, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    perhaps true creativity and eccentricity go hand in hand?

  • Julianna


    March 7th, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    I wish that I had this tool but I do not. Just thinking about writing or painting something makes me break out in a sweat, because I know it isn’t something that I am good at! :) But I guess there are other ways other than these venues to get creative- I suppose that it could be with cooking or decorating or anything really that is enjoyable to you and lets a little bit of your fun and creative side shine through. What I always have to tell myself to remember is that it doesn’t matter if what I produce is actually good if it is doing something good for me.

  • Cooper


    March 8th, 2012 at 1:56 PM

    Honestly, just trying to be creative drives me crazy! I don’t have that creativity flowing through me like the best do. I am ok with the straight and narrow.

  • Hummingbird


    March 8th, 2012 at 9:50 PM

    Art can be an outlet for a genius,and for a troubled individual.They say talkin about your problems helps.But for some,their canvas is their best friend and ‘talking’ to this best friend of theirs helps them. hooray art therapy!

  • Sybil Collins

    Sybil Collins

    March 10th, 2012 at 1:27 PM

    I have always loved my alone time, when I get the chance to apply paint to the canvas and let it all out. I might have had a hard week or not but this is something that always brings just a little bit of peace to my life, and something that I will alwats make time for. I hope that there are more therapists around who are encouraging thir patients to do the same. It is not about creating some kind of genius masterpiece, but about letting your feelings and thoughts out in a way that is totally safe and meaningful to you. If you would just give it one try, even if this is something that you have not done before, I am sure that you will find it beneficial.

  • Beck


    March 11th, 2012 at 5:22 AM

    Think of all of the tortured artists over the centuries
    van Gogh, Plath, Mozart, others
    There has to be something to the whole eccentricity thing breeding such creativity

  • Athena Phillips, LCSW

    Athena Phillips, LCSW

    March 14th, 2012 at 2:52 PM

    Thank you everyone for your responses! I had wanted to include a definition of creativity in my article as inclusive of things outside of art (but didn’t know how to squeeze it in). Sometimes we consider science and math, for example, as being the opposite of creativity but I would include these as artistic mediums. My interest is really in the process of how we engage with something or are drawn in by it, whatever that thing may be and how that acts as an emotional conduit. So even if one isn’t interested in or capable of an artistic endeavor, that doesn’t mean they are void of creativity. It would mean their medium is something other than a canvas for example. But really connecting with something outside of ourselves, thinking about it, rearranging or coming up with new concepts within it, is how I would like to think of it. The feeling of connection to something versus the product of that connection is what I consider be of real value to us both within the context of healing and outside of it. Hope that makes sense. And thank you all again.

  • Clayton Murwin

    Clayton Murwin

    August 10th, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    I am an artist, and have been since I was a child. My mother is an artist. The thought that art is the correlation of pain, or trauma is in my mind not true. Art in whatever form, is the outlet for which an individual is able to express something within themselves that needs to be released, the need to create that which has not yet been created,or to expand upon that which already exist to make it better or improve upon it, in order to fulfill ones own need. Art as a Therapy whether it is drawing,painting,music,dance,cake decorating, or writing, allows the person to step outside of themselves and concentrate on the process at hand and separates them from the confinement of their inner self.Thus allowing that individual to remove the pain or embellish upon their desire. It does not really matter what it is, in an individuals life that inspires or sooth’s them. It for them utilizes that separation of ones self.That in my opinion is why Art as therapy is so successful in many cases because of that separation which allows the healing process to take over.

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