Expressive Arts As Means to Heal Trauma

Teacher and woman doing arts and craftsI recently had the honor and privilege of attending a workshop with renowned art therapists Cathy Malchiodi and Kate Webb in San Diego, CA, entitled Trauma-Informed Art Therapy and Positive Psychology. To say I was inspired, confirmed, validated, and energized by the experience is truly an understatement.

As a licensed clinical social worker, I often have drawn from the expressive arts as a means of helping my clients work through grief, loss, and trauma in psychotherapy. Art making, whether via collage, painting, drawing, sculpting, dancing, making music, and drama, has the potential to help individuals heal through very traumatic circumstances. The workshop focused on the evidence-based use of art making interventions and the intersection with neurobiology and somatic experiencing to help clients work through trying life challenges.

In my 20+ years of psychotherapy practice, I have called upon art intervention with the following populations: child witnesses of domestic violence, abuse survivors, hospice patients and their families, preschool children who witnessed L.A. riots, bereavement support groups, students struggling in academic settings, children of incarcerated parents, and mothers experiencing perinatal depression.

Art allowed clients to transcend their emotional pain, create a narrative through image of their trauma/loss, and subsequently “master” the trauma, thereby releasing the painful memory from its grip in the brain. Art continues to be transformative in my practice with clients and also in my own personal life.

As Malchiodi and Webb stated in their conference, we as humans all experience traumas across the lifespan. These incidents can be as “minor” as a traffic jam to as life-changing as the death of a family member. All traumas, no matter how seemingly big or small, are encoded in the brain’s amygdala where they are registered as potential alarm bells. The hippocampus then takes on the role of organizing these traumatic images, but struggles to encode them in such a way that makes sense to the cognitive (higher thinking/verbal) areas of the brain.

Art making taps into the lower-level (somatic/limbic) areas of the brain and also allows the client to release trauma in a somatic (physically manifested/preverbal) manner. Some individuals are rendered speechless in moments of trauma. As researchers have indicated, Broca’s Area in the brain has the potential to shut down verbalization of trauma, as an individual is in a hyper-alert state of fight or flight.

Art making accesses the somatic elements of the brain, enabling a client to express emotion which at times cannot be verbalized initially. Art making creates containment, safety, encouragement, validation, and an opportunity to narrate the traumatic experience in such a way that the trauma is then organized in the brain so that the individual’s somatic experiencing of the trauma is reduced.

Relaxation exercises coupled with art making bring about great relief for many clients. Playing music that matches a resting heartbeat has been proven to induce a state of calmness in many trauma survivors. Some clients are compelled to also engage in other forms of expression, such as drum playing and dancing. Discharging the trauma physically (exercise, music making, etc.) and through the use of creativity in art allows the client to move through the experience with a sense of self-compassion, mastery of the trauma, and a restored sense of trust in one’s surroundings.

To summarize the workshop I attended in a small article would not lend justice to all the incredible learning experienced. Suffice it to say my education of expressive arts is ongoing, and continues to be a driving force in the work I am honored to provide along the people who come to see me for therapy. Truly, belief that the client has the power of self-determination and the awareness and knowledge within to interpret their own art making is essential in nonjudgmentally supporting the client.

Ongoing training in the cutting edge juxtaposition of art and science in expressive arts and neurobiology is incredibly exciting and groundbreaking. Mindfulness and positive psychology also weave their way into the expressive arts as a form of healing which empowers clients to transcend trauma and loss and evolve to a place of healing and wellness.

The following is a list of titles I have found to be inspiring and helpful for psychotherapists wishing to learn more on the path of incorporating expressive arts in their work with clients:

  1. Malchiodi, Cathy. (2002)The Soul’s Pallete: Drawing on Art’s Transformative Powers, Shambhala Publications
  2. Malchiodi, Cathy. (2006)The Art Therapy Sourcebook, McGraw-Hill
  3. Allen, Pat . (1995) Art is a Way of Knowing,Shambala Publications
  4. McNiff, Shaun (2004). Art Heals: How Creativity Cures the Soul, Shambhala Publications
  5. McNiff, Shaun (1992). Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination, Shambhala Publications

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

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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  • darlin

    March 24th, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    I have had the amazing opportunity to see this field expand and grow over the years and I can only hope that it will continue to enrich the lives of so many others.

  • Valerie Hernandez

    March 24th, 2014 at 12:42 PM

    More Arts Therapy should be available to trauma survivors. How do you suppose one creates opportunities for this avenue of healing in an area that has limited types of alternative approaches?

  • Morgan K

    March 24th, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    One big reason why so many people respond to this form treatment in such a positive manner is that it doesn’t offer any kind of threat to them. It is safe but at the same time you get a whole lot out of it. It is a way to share your thoughts and feelings in a way that is non threatening and basically hurts no one, including you. It can be a real insight into what is going on with you, even things that you really didn’t even know were going on, and that can bring you one step closer to healing. If there were more people who were offered art therapy as an option for treatment I think that you would overall find more people generally more satisfied with their treatment outcomes and experiences.

  • bonner

    March 25th, 2014 at 3:48 AM

    Having someone who is very well trained in this area leading the way for a patient could be critical for their recovery. Not just anyone could facilitate this style of healing, but if one truly has the education and the skills they could make a real difference in the lives of many trauma victims. If I knew someone who had gone through an event like this I would certainly recommend that they at least try this in addition to any other therapy that they were engaged in. It might not be the norm but from all that I have read it is making a difference in the lives of many. However I would want it to be with someone who really has been put through all the paces with their training and who know the ins and puts, when to push patinets and when to just let them be a little more free, to get the most out of the healking and therapeutic process.

  • Edward H

    March 25th, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    It’s a real shame there’s no such thing for people who have survived damage to the right perital lobe of the brain. I haven’t had a single dream in over 7 years because that section’s connection to the temporal lobe(which due to later surgery to stop the seizure disorder it’d given me I’m now missing 80% of,) has been severed so badly, and since during the latter surgery I had a hemmoragic stroke (and WAS left handed, ) I can’t play drums anymore, and for that matter can barely print my own name to sign receipts, much less paint.

  • Nan

    March 25th, 2014 at 10:34 AM

    I love that when I choose to write or draw or even pain it gives me a very good visual image for what I am feeling even when I amy not actually know it.
    Those things that I am feeling internally come out all dark on paper and show me the things that I need to work on so that I can understand and work through those things. I am not saying that my work is always going to be rainbows and perfect nor that this is what I will be striving for, but it is nice to see a little brightness and working via the arts offers me the occasion to see much of what I am processing internally come out in an external manner so that I can deal with it in a whole new and thoughtful way.

  • daniel

    March 25th, 2014 at 3:23 PM

    It sounds like this is really helping others but I have never felt like this is something that I could relate to in a way that would prove to be meaningful for me.
    Do you think that I am wrong and am just not giving this enough time?
    Or could I be that person for whom this may just not be the thig and I should look for something else, another way to be a little more expressive and candid?
    I want to be creative and have an outlet but I am not quite sure that this would be it for me.

  • Andrea Schneider

    March 25th, 2014 at 4:10 PM

    @Daniel– to answer your question, there is no one size fits all prescription for psychotherapy — this is one evidence-based approach to working with trauma– it may be for you or it may not be — other interventions helpful for trauma work can also include EMDR, EFT, hypnosis, and cognitive behavioral work. Working with a therapist trained in these interventions and who is a good fit for you is essential in your therapy program.

  • Andrea Schneider

    March 25th, 2014 at 4:13 PM

    Glad that others have benefitted with this approach — it really is so helpful to so many — yes, important to work with skilled trained professionals who know the modality, pacing, intervention, etc.

  • paulina

    March 26th, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    Once when I was going through a particularly hard time in college I got involved with an on campus dramatic group. It just felt like a way that I could actually have a voice when I honestly felt like I didn’t have one anymore. If I neede to shout, then hey, I could improv one into the scene and who would knwo? I am telling you, this was the ebst semester of my life! I would never trade that time that I sepnt doing this for anything in the world because this let me just have some freedom that I doidn’t have in any other way and I reveled in it! I didn’t have to tell anyone else what I was doing, didn’t really feel the need to and that was okay. I met some great new friends and had the chance to let go of a lot of things that I had carried around with me for a very long time.

  • Kate Webb

    March 27th, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    Thanks Andrea for posting this. I’m glad you were inspired in our workshop and so happy to know you are passing along your knowledge. Wonderful article!

  • Andrea Schneider

    March 27th, 2014 at 3:36 PM

    Thanks Kate Webb! Your words mean so much! Truly inspiring workshop…thank you!!!

  • callie

    March 27th, 2014 at 5:28 PM

    And I am happy to learn that more people are taking a sincere interest in this and sharing this sorm of therapy with others.

  • Ed

    March 28th, 2014 at 2:56 PM

    So this is kind of curious to me as it just occured to me then why are so many artists seemingly so tortured? I mean I am talking about writers, singers, artists, painters, etc. They all seem to run the gamut of having issues, so if the arts are supposed to be so therapeutic then why all the tortured and troubled artists and performers that we always seem to hear about and traditionally always have?

  • Andrea Schneider

    March 28th, 2014 at 4:14 PM

    @Ed– that’s an overgeneralization…there are just as many scientists and engineers as artists who have life challenges…perhaps it is those who feel free to express their creative soul without restrain that are most able to embrace expressive arts therapies as a healing modality…

  • Ed

    March 30th, 2014 at 12:27 PM

    Okay so I see where you are going with that, but I guess I have a hard time with the fact that something can be so healing for some and so tortured for others, or that so many who are tortured seem attracted to that venue. You see how I struggle with this?

  • Monica

    March 31st, 2014 at 3:22 PM

    Either things like this just aren’t offered where I live or I haven’t ever been to the right referrer because I have never had anyone even remotely suggest to me that perhaps I should try something like this. And I know that I would like it! I know that for me I sometimes get all tongue toed when I try to get out what I am thinking but maybe I would feel a little better about that if I had another way to express myself and my feelings.

  • Thomas

    May 29th, 2014 at 12:11 PM

    Art therapy and the other creative arts modalities (dance/movement & music therapy) are tremendously helpful for many individuals, especially with trauma. Anyone practicing art therapy needs to have a master’s degree in art therapy, and preferably hold a board certification in art therapy. The credential will say ATR-BC after their name.

  • Andrea Schneider

    May 29th, 2014 at 2:26 PM

    Thomas — yes I agree– however, anyone who is trained in expressive arts and art intervention can do art intervention :)) andrea

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