Art Therapy: Invoking Images to Heal Trauma

A close-up picture of a paint brush dipping into a palette of mixed pain colors.Full permission has been given by the client to tell this story on All identifying information has been changed.

Images hold keys that unlock our inner experiences. Images can penetrate mental defenses that have been dispelling or diminishing the importance of feelings and experiences in our lives. During a traumatic event(s), images, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes can become hardwired in the brain to the event. At the time of a trauma, the body internalizes feelings that might otherwise overwhelm normal ego function. Later those traumatic experiences can be accessed voluntarily, or triggered involuntarily, through the senses or movement.

People usually come into therapy for help to alleviate problems, such as depression, anxiety, anger, or rage. A person may come into therapy seeking help to change the dynamic of a relationship, or to make better choices in their daily lives. Oftentimes, therapy involves working on current issues, while at the same time drawing parallels to earlier life experiences. In art therapy, a person may create a piece of artwork during a session by drawing with markers, ink, pencils, or watercolor. The person may do this while talking about events that are causing distress. The artwork can become a record of the session thereby providing a visual link to what was discussed.

Sometimes a person will bring in content from a recent dream. He/she may bring in a piece of artwork that he/she has created off site, and use that to delve more deeply into the experience. In art psychotherapy we pay close attention to the meaning images hold for the individual. The meaning of an image may be obvious or logical to the person. Sometimes the meaning of an image can evolve or change. Oftentimes an image is felt through a connection, but the meaning becomes known, later, through interacting with it.

A man I see in therapy is making a video as part of his treatment. He came into therapy suffering from depression, anxiety, anger, and rage. He often brings his laptop or a thumb drive into session. Sometimes he addresses issues that are current in his life, and at other times he shows his work-in-progress and processes memories and experiences unearthed by his video project. Therapy is a process of trust-building, not only between the client and the therapist, but between the client and him- or herself. For this man, identifying the project that he wanted to work on and following through with it, helped him to build self-trust. Trusting that the project was going to be useful, trusting that he could execute it, trusting that he would complete it, and that he would learn something of himself helped shift his self perception of someone who never completes anything, to someone who has something to offer others through his video narrative.

This person had been traumatized throughout his childhood by relatives who inflicted physical and psychological pain upon him. A few years ago he acquired Super 8 film footage that included a clip of him when he was approximately 6 years old. In the short film clip that he transferred to video he is seen actively running around with other children. Since he was not the focus of the camera’s eye, the clip of him is very brief. He does not have other images of himself as a child, because his mother was mentally ill and incapable of operating a camera, and his father is unknown. The video clip captures his innocence, in a sense, because he wasn’t performing for the camera, he was simply being himself.

This man has looked at the short clip many times in session, while editing it into his larger video piece. He was able to incorporate other footage to create associations that refer more specifically to his experiences. He slowed down footage and sped it up. He made clips fill the screen and then vanish from sight, over a few seconds. He added a sound track of his voice, as well as music, that had personal relevance to him. He used transitions that helped him piece together events that spanned most of his life.

The few frames of Super 8 footage taken at an age when his memories were being formed, allowed him to connect to his experience and integrate them into his life. He processed his emotions and understood that his behavior was his way of numbing the pain. He was able to acknowledge his skill, having created a coping methods that, as a child, was necessary for survival. He learned that many of those early coping methods created other problems, such as drug addiction, incarceration, anger, rage and isolation. Through years of recovery and therapy he is now thriving and giving back to others, He volunteers and shares his story with those who have experienced similar traumas.

Images connect to the deeper recesses of who we are through the meaning we attach to them, both consciously and unconsciously. In therapy meaning is unique to the individual. An image can invite a conversation about meaning without a battery of forms or diagnoses that are necessary and useful for treatment, but in themselves often neglect the humanity and life experience of the person in front of us.

© Copyright 2011 by By Barbara 'Basia' Mosinski, LCAT, ATR-BC, MA, MFA. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Katie Evans

    February 11th, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    Not only are images and other senses associated with everything that we see and experience but they also act as special pointers to those memories and help us in going deep into that memory.

  • Sam

    February 12th, 2011 at 5:27 AM

    Images surround us everywhere in life and sometimes it is surprising the differing ways that they can affect us. We have different associations with different images throughout life and even when something has made a guge impact on us as a child it can still come back and affect us exactly the same way well into adulthhood. It is all about how we have processed that image from the ebginning and about the way that we still allow it to make us feel today.

  • Darren

    February 17th, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    I find that scents, not images, bring back things for me. The smell of potpourri for example makes me think of my mother’s bathroom for some reason, even though I don’t remember ever seeing a bowl of it there. Pictures just don’t trigger memories the same.

  • Dionne

    February 18th, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    My husband can’t look at pictures of his childhood because they bring back so many bad memories of how harsh it was. He has very vivid recall and seeing them upsets him. If he had his way they would all be thrown out. I talked him out of that. One day he may find them useful. Till then, they are in a dust-covered box.

  • Basia Mosinski

    March 6th, 2011 at 4:44 PM

    Dionne, on March 10th I will upload a new blog with more writing about the process of using images, stirring memories, processing meaning and transforming pain into energy. On the blog I will include a link to the video that I referred to in this blog.

    Thank you for your observation regarding your husband. I will address the ways that resistance is part of the process in the blog as well.

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