How Art Therapy Supports Trauma Recovery

gouache picture of sunflower field“It is so difficult to put the complexities of the trauma recovery process into words—artwork does this much better!” – Joan Turkus, M.D.

Posttraumatic stress (PTSD) is a condition that is, unfortunately, quite common in modern society. Statistics show that 70% of adults in the United States have experienced some form of traumatic event at some time in their lives and that up to 20% of this population will go on to develop PTSD. If you have undergone trauma, you are not alone. While many forms of therapy continue to emerge to treat those who have experienced trauma, art therapy is one that has been proven by a number of studies to be effective in dealing with the aftereffects of trauma. Whether you are a survivor of abuse, war, natural disaster, or another traumatic event, art therapy will likely be able to help you heal.

Breaking the Silence

A common occurrence after a person has experienced trauma is a hesitancy or inability to discuss the incident out loud or verbally, even with a professional therapist. Repressing all thoughts and feelings is one reason this can happen. In expressive arts therapy, words are not necessary; much can be achieved without them. Expressive arts therapy moves the client and therapist from the traditional talk therapy roles and into a process that may be less provocative. The medium serves as a bridge between you and the therapist, allowing exploration to occur at a comfortable pace.

Each medium is carefully selected by the therapist to support giving voice to your experience. You don’t have to strain to say the right thing; the medium can speak for you and act as a support for your experience. Some emotions may be better expressed through art than through verbal language anyway. While you may not be able to put what you feel into words, viewing your work in front of you is something else entirely—something that can lead to your healing.

Journey to the Unconscious

Repression, or the brain’s attempt to send difficult thoughts straight into the unconscious, supports clients in handling their trauma. This phenomenon is observed frequently in trauma victims, who claim to have no recollections of the disturbing events. Many experts view art therapy as a way to tap into these unconscious thoughts and memories and bring them to the surface, so that individuals can heal and reconcile them.

You’re probably familiar with the left-brain and right-brain theory, which has been common knowledge among the general public for quite some time now. The act of creative expression utilizes the right-brain hemisphere. What’s interesting is that the right brain is also where visual memories are stored. Many theorize that the two are therefore very closely linked and that this is one of the reasons that art therapy has been so successful at uncovering repressed, unconscious images.

Helping Children Heal

Although art therapy has been proven to be a successful treatment for people of all ages, research shows that it has been particularly effective in the treatment of children. Various developmental theories claim that children do not fully develop verbal skills until adolescence, and it is therefore no surprise that your child may better respond to a creative outlet for self-expression than a chat with a therapist.

Seeking the right treatment for you or your child following a trauma is often frustrating, particularly when you do not know where to turn. While it is important to read about all of your options, if you or your child has experienced any form of trauma, then art therapy may be helpful.

References:

  1. Art therapy. (2011). Retrieved July 15, 2012, from Trauma Recovery Center: http://www.traumarecoverycenter.com/art_therapy.html
  2. Art therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2012, from Casa Palmera: http://www.casapalmera.com/articles/art-therapy/
    Art therapy what is it? (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2012, from CRC Health Group: http://www.crchealth.com/types-of-therapy/what-is-art-therapy/
  3. Clatch, M. (2012, January 1). Trauma recovery through art and play therapy. Retrieved July 15, 2012, from Courage to Connect Therapeutic Center: http://www.couragetoconnecttherapy.com/trauma-recovery-through-art-and-play-therapy
  4. Malchiodi, C. (2012, February 22). Art therapy shows promise in treatment of PTSD & trauma. Retrieved July 15, 2012, from Art Therapy: http://www.arttherapyblog.com/ptsd/ptsd-treatment-showing-promise/#more-26
  5. Malchiodi, C. (2012, March 6). Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy. Retrieved July 15, 2012, from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-healing-arts/201203/trauma-informed-expressive-arts-therapy
  6. Rosenthal, M. (n.d.). PTSD statistics. Retrieved July 15, 2012, from Heal My PTSD: http://healmyptsd.com/education/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-statistics

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, therapist in San Francisco, California

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

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  • trina s

    trina s

    July 25th, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    I can’t speak for everyone because I know that different people and different situations often lead to varying outcomes, but I am such a huge fan of art therapy, particularly because at one point I feel like it absolutley saved my sanity and my life!

    I had something really terrible happen to me when I was 15, and although I wanted to talk about it, I just couldn’t and still have a hard time talking about it verbally.

    So my mom went out on a limb and sought out every form of counseling for me that she could find, bless her heart, and finally we happened upon this lady who used art therapy as a big part of her treatment method and therapy process.

    This is what finally clicked for me. Finally I felt like I had an outlet for these emotions that I was having on the inside and this was the way that it felt safe for me to let them out. It might not be the answer for everyone as we all respond in different ways, but I think that anyone who needs to feel like they have a voice but have those same fears that I did should take a chance because this created a path for me to get better that I did not have before this.

  • Aba

    Aba

    May 13th, 2015 at 6:19 AM

    ArT Therapy is a prominent tool for healing the complete person. Medical persons should begin to place premium on this therapy and refer their clients to receive it.

  • Aba

    Aba

    May 13th, 2015 at 6:23 AM

    God through nature gave us art therapy to heal us from all emotional break down. Medicine kills but art therapy gives life

  • Becky

    Becky

    July 25th, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    Art therapy- so helpful for any patient who is searching for a way to communicate just what is going on inside of them, regardless of their age

  • RENE

    RENE

    July 25th, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    I would have thought trauma would inhibit one’s ability to be involved in art and actually do anything at all.but its nice to know that people can lean on art to actually fight off trauma.

    Once thing we all need to remember is to be strong mentally when in a tough situation and to never give it up.We can overcome trauma with the approach too.

  • Lisa oliver

    Lisa oliver

    July 26th, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    For me I don’t think that having to express myself through art would be very good at all.
    Art is something that intimidates me, like I think that I can’t create that masterpiece so putting pen to paper in that way is pointless for me.
    I am not sure that if given this task that I could ever get past the fact that I am not an artist, even if that is not the point of the plan.

  • Aurora Luna

    Aurora Luna

    July 27th, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    The reason why art and other disciplines and practices heal is that the person has the will to change and has made a decision to help himself.
    Art practice has become a healthful way for me to transform my emotions and thoughts, I strongly recommend art therapy as a healing and discovering process for everyone even if you are not planning to become an artist.
    Start drawing, painting, acting, singing, writing, etc., and have in mind that THE CREATIVE process is what matters, nor the final creation.

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous

    November 28th, 2013 at 5:16 AM

    I have recently undergone my third burn out in three years due to workplace harassment and too much work. Each burn out got progressively worse. After going on medical leave suffering from pure rage, PTSD and memory loss my therapist recommended a book called “The gifts of imperfection” (great book) which amongst other things, kept going on about being creative.

    I dont draw, I dont paint and I dont play an instrument anymore. But I grabbed my ipad and a crappy sketch app my nephew had once installed and simply couldnt stop! Feelings, thoughts, ideas which were clogged in my subconscious streamed forth into colours shapes and forms. It was a relief to be able to do this as I am also not good at expressing my emotions.

    Its not art, its introspection. Quality doesnt matter, colour and forms dont matter. Its the visible tangible representation of something within oneself which can be easily revisited, examined and interpreted at leisure, with time. This allowing understanding to form and healing to follow.

  • Douglas

    Douglas

    November 28th, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    Dear Anonymous,
    You understand perfectly – I appreciate your honesty.

  • Gayled

    Gayled

    January 22nd, 2015 at 6:52 PM

    For me, being in recovery and having nightmares , art always is a form of relaxation and deeper awareness

  • Aba

    Aba

    May 13th, 2015 at 6:15 AM

    Art therapy is the best healing nature has offered humanity. every person needs art therapy including leaders of the world.

  • Monique

    Monique

    October 16th, 2015 at 12:25 AM

    The inclusion of art therapy in one’s life is so important, especially in children I’ve found.
    The Art Room program, which started in 2002, is aimed at children between the ages of 5-16 who have been identified as needing emotional and behavioural support by their teachers.
    In a recent study, Melissa Cortina and colleague Mina Fazel of Oxford University analyzed questionnaires filled out by 169 students in the program and their teachers before and after the 2012-2013 school year. Overall that year, more than 1,000 kids from 13 feeder schools attended The Art Room.

    Based on teacher responses, students improved in all areas. There was a 37 percent reduction in a topic called Total Difficulties, a 41 percent reduction in emotional problems, a 15 percent reduction in conduct problems, a 33 percent reduction in hyperactivity, a 41 percent reduction in problems with classmates and a 24 percent improvement in social behavior.

    Through my own recent research of art therapy, it is something that I want to explore later in life. Thank you for sharing!

  • jill astall

    jill astall

    October 30th, 2016 at 10:50 PM

    “Art versus Therapy” by Jill Rosier Astall
    Artist and Author.

  • Denise

    Denise

    February 14th, 2017 at 7:00 PM

    Art gives me the boldness and replaces a void in me that has been missing in me since childhood!

  • R.JAN

    R.JAN

    October 9th, 2017 at 6:09 PM

    I was a brilliant artist in college, deans list, honor role, etc. I have little self confidence now. Forth year term my father told me to destroy my entire portfolio of college work which as a dutiful son I did. for the rest of my life I have had a raging hate for this monster inside of myself that suffocates me from ever painting again. upon my fathers death I danced like a mad man. still I am locked in this prison of this evil mans condemnation of who I am. I must do something to destroy this person still lording over me. SHALOM

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