Creativity: Unexpected Side Effect of Trauma/PTSD?

paintbrush on canvasWe know that certain functions of the body shut down when a person is faced with a threatening situation. This allows other parts to become more active. Larger sets of muscles receive more blood as heart rate increases, allowing for the well-documented “fight-or-flight” response. While the body tenses and readies to “respond,” some areas of the brain become less active. Hence, the ability to process emotional responses and store memories during a traumatic event can be impaired while pre-programmed survival mechanisms kick in.

Posttraumatic Stress

For some, this will lead to a condition known as PTSD (posttraumatic stress). The intense emotions associated with an unintegrated traumatic memory can impair normal functioning in daily life for those experiencing PTSD. Read more about this here.

Not everyone experiencing a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD. However, for those that do, PTSD is treatable. Eventually, there can actually be benefits that result from a well-integrated traumatic event. This is called posttraumatic growth.

Posttraumatic Growth

Many people experience a meaningful improvement in their psychological outlook on life after a traumatic or life-altering event. For example, after a near-death experience, some report a renewed zest for living, an intense wonder at the beauty of the natural world that surrounds them, and a deeply felt sense of purpose not previously recognized.

In one study, Robert James Miller II and David Read Johnson noted an increased capacity for symbolic thinking in a group of 56 Vietnam War veterans who experienced PTSD. From the abstract: “Unexpectedly, subjects with PTSD in comparison to subjects without PTSD showed greater capacity for symbolic representation, and no difference in lexical capacity, raising new questions as to the mechanism by which trauma could increase the capacity for mental imagery.”

It’s possible that in order to avoid re-experiencing a traumatic event (because memories of the event have not been properly stored), some people unknowingly strengthen their ability to think symbolically as a coping mechanism. Since we know that symbolic thinking is a cornerstone of the creative process, can an unexpected benefit of trauma be an increase in creativity?

Surges in Creativity

There is compelling evidence that suggests surges in creativity could be linked to the experience of trauma. Dr. Marie Forgeard conducted an online study to investigate this idea. An online questionnaire was filled out by participants, whose answers were used to measure posttraumatic growth, rumination related to the event, and growth of creativity. Forgeard used two measures in the study: (1) scores on a measure of posttraumatic growth and depreciation and (2) scores on self-reported measures of creativity in the aftermath of adversity.

She found that “… adversity-induced distress predicted self-reported creative growth and breadth in a sample of online participants. Cognitive processing [intrusive/deliberative rumination] as well as domains of posttraumatic growth/depreciation—in particular, self-reported changes in interpersonal relationships and in the perception of new possibilities for one’s life—mediated the link between self-reported distress and creativity outcomes.”

It is important to note that intrusive rumination describes a process where the individual is primarily focused on the symptoms of the distress being experienced as opposed to solutions for these symptoms. On the other hand, deliberate rumination is a process by which an individual turns inward and engages in reflection along with contemplation about various problem-solving possibilities.

Creative Therapy and Deliberate Rumination

Given the links between trauma and creativity that are being uncovered, creative therapies such as art therapy or expressive writing, coupled with supported deliberate rumination practice, could be beneficial in the recovery process for individuals wishing to deal with the aftermath of traumatic, life-altering events and/or full-blown PTSD.

References:

  1. Miller II, Robert James, and Johnson, David Read. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Vol. 4(1), Jan 2012, 112-116. doi: 10.1037/a0021580. Retrieved 3/21/14 from: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/tra/4/1/112/
  2. Thompson, Paula. The Traumatized Imagination: Creativity, Trauma, and the Neurobiology of the Resilient Spirit. Retrieved 3/21/14 from: http://www.healingresources.info/article_thomson1.htm
  3. Forgeard, Marie J. C. Perceiving Benefits after Adversity: The Relationship Between Self-Reported Posttraumatic Growth and Creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Vol. 7(3), Aug 2013, 245-264. doi: 10.1037/a0031223. Abstract retrieved on 3/21/14.

© Copyright 2014 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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  • Lizzie

    Lizzie

    April 9th, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Well at least this is some encouraging news for those who struggle with PTSD. It seems that all they probably hear are doom and gloom stories but finally a little ray of sunshine and hope for them and their recovery.

  • Brian

    Brian

    April 10th, 2014 at 12:21 AM

    Being creative helps to open up the right hand side of the mind (creative side), so what I’m guessing is happening is that by being creative, it allows them a “creative” way to escape the left side of the brain (logical side) rumination and analysing of what happened and is happening.

  • april c

    april c

    April 10th, 2014 at 3:37 AM

    The thoughts that I have always had were that someone would be so scarred and stunted from an event like this that all life would be taken from them. But I am so happy to see that for many survivors this is not the case at all. They have someohow managed to find their way back to living with something fresh and renewed to say and I think that this is something that could be so helpful for so many survivors of trauma. You can’t always allow things like this to keep you down and reserach and evidence like this show that there are a whole lot of people who are not laying down, who are fighting this that has happened to them and they are turning to these kinds of creative outlets to make sure that their voices are heard. I think that this could be so inspiring to a whole lot of fellow survivors of trauma.

  • Jeff

    Jeff

    April 10th, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    I like that you point out that there can be growth from this type of experience and you may not know it now but there might be a lesson in all of this pain that you can take away with you and learn from and share with others.

  • OLIVER

    OLIVER

    April 11th, 2014 at 3:33 AM

    BUT ALL OF THIS IS SELF REPORTED YES BECAUSE THERE WOULD BE NO OBJECTIVE TOOL TO MEASURE THIS

  • malia

    malia

    April 12th, 2014 at 7:51 AM

    I read this and I think that I wish this could be me but I was raped last year andt his is the only thing that I can ever come back to, how much this stranger took away from me and how I feel like I will never have anything good to give back. I read that and know that I still need some help working through my issues and I am sure that any woman who has ever gone through this feels the same way. He took that creativity and that life from me through my non consent and well, there feels like there is nothing left for me to ever give back now.

  • Douglas

    Douglas

    April 12th, 2014 at 9:55 AM

    It is great to hear all your comments on this article. It is devastating to experience any type of trauma. I often wonder what, if anything positive, can come of it. I think it is important to note that the process of examining your experience is quite literally more important than anything else, and that reflection in itself is a creative and imaginary process worth every effort.
    In response to Malia:
    I’m so sorry this happened to you. It is truly an injustice to women. There is lots of support for you out there and I encourage you to continue to seek counsel for as long as it is needed. May you find your way back with love and compassion for your experience.

  • malia

    malia

    April 15th, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    Thanks Douglas. I am hopeful that I can make that turn around too. It’s been a few days since I posted and I actually feel like I am even in a better place today than when I last commented. Every day gets a little better and I know logically that the healing just takes time.

  • Scarlet

    Scarlet

    April 25th, 2014 at 6:56 AM

    As an artist who has PTSD, I found this article very interesting, because stress does seem to spark some kind of creative outpouring for me. But I also wondered while read this, whether creative people might not be more prone to PTSD as well.

    For as long as I can recall, I have had an incredibly rich inner life with vivid imagery for everything I think, or even for things that others will say to me. It’s like my ability for mental imagery is far more amplified than it is for the average person, but there’s a strong emotional arousal that goes with it as well.

    I don’t know if the prolonged traumas enhanced those abilities, or if it was already there. There’s a random rumination with intrusive thoughts and flashbacks that takes place with PTSD, and one can really get lost in it and feel it all as if it is currently happening, but that is something that can be more deliberately carried out, like mentioned in the article.

    I’ve noticed that the more I deliberately engage the traumatic material in with my creative process, it loses it’s control over my emotional state, and I can control and transform it.

    I’m a trained artist, but I’ll tell you…years of art therapy has done far more for me creatively than art school did. It’s also the *only* thing that has ever helped with the effects of trauma.

  • Douglas

    Douglas

    April 25th, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    Thanks everyone for your insights, Scarlet – thanks so much for your personal reflection.

  • Lori

    Lori

    April 26th, 2014 at 6:22 AM

    I run a PHP outpatient group and we have art therapy once a week. I have several clients that have PTSD and I have noticed that they are usually the ones who delve into the projects more and seem more satisfied once the project is complete. We did an abstract model magic clay project one time where we were making objects and promptly destroying them to make different designs and one clients with PTSD was getting more and more frustrated. When I approached her and asked what was wrong she confided in me that she was angry that we had to keep destroying what she was making. So YES, PTSD clients are very creative and it seems so in my small populous that they benefit mostly from crafts that they can take home with them or are permanent expressionist art forms. This last art project was tie dying shirts and they just loved it. I had never put the two together that my PTSD clients were benefiting from the art expression more so than my other clientele. I have a client who was in Vietnam and he is VERY creative and it quiets his pain. you can see him smile which is a rare trait for him. Art day is very relaxed and fun for my PHP group. It’s nice to see that there was a correlation study done. No hard data though just an opinion self-evaluation study but maybe in the future they will have a technique to measure how well the two correlate.

  • Douglas

    Douglas

    April 26th, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    Excellent Lori! – Thanks for posting your experience here. One of my clients used art to actually move through his entire process and was very receptive and aware of how the art was narrating the story and unfolding a new narrative. It was impressive how the art was informing, shaping, and molding his experience.

  • L

    L

    March 15th, 2016 at 9:46 AM

    This is interesting. PTSD had the exact opposite effect on me. It’s completely destroyed my creative drive. I can’t concentrate, can’t focus. Well, that’s not true obviously I ruminate on repeated traumas. But I can’t say that it’s enhanced my creativity at all. Maybe it’s because my trauma is rooted in interpersonal abuse and sexual assault, you know in the one way, with the few people where you’re supposed to be able to express yourself without being judged or hurt. It’s kind of like certain people in my past set out to destroy me and they succeeded in part.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    March 15th, 2016 at 11:29 AM

    Dear L,

    Thank you for your comment. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we do want to encourage you to reach out. If you would like to talk about this or any other concern with a mental health professional, feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

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  • L

    L

    March 15th, 2016 at 9:47 AM

    oh as an aside – I used to be a musician, and also wrote prolifically. I do neither now.

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