Art Therapy and Trauma

Creative expression can tap into a person’s innermost thoughts and feelings that they can’t otherwise verbalize. It plays a big role in art therapy, especially when it comes to dealing with and healing from trauma.

A 5-year-old girl named Tasha (pseudonym) worked with an art therapist to process severe trauma that she underwent at three years of age. Tasha was sexually abused by a close relative for more than a year. Her aunt brought her for art therapy because she was having a hard time connecting to Tasha. Initially during art therapy, Tasha has no memory of being abused. She would even name her abuser as her favorite person.

Some would argue that for Tasha forgetting that traumatic experience would have been the best thing. After all, why would the art therapist dig up the traumatic experience and make Tasha aware of it at such a young age?

The danger of unprocessed abuse

Trauma is defined as a psychological phenomenon caused by a life-threatening or distressing event. This can result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or chronic anxiety. There are many possible reasons for trauma, such as accidents, abuse, war, loss, etc. People who experience trauma go through the five phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These phases also help the person process the trauma or find a resolution. 

Tasha’s trauma occurred at a very young age.  It was so severe that it was repressed or erased from her memory. However, if Tasha’s trauma remained unprocessed it would surface in her future with very serious consequences for her developmental and mental health. Long-term consequences of unprocessed trauma include self-harm, insecurity, aggression, nightmares, emotional numbing, and addiction.

According to research, traumatic memories are stored in the brain’s right hemisphere, which is pre-verbal, hence Tasha would not have been able to verbalise it. For the art therapist to gain access to that memory, she had to tap into Tasha’s non-verbal part of the brain through art-making. This allowed Tasha to access the emotions related to her trauma without the fear of re-traumatization. Although Tasha’s trauma was extremely severe and would require long-term therapy, in time Tasha might be able to process her trauma and perhaps come to terms with it.

 Art Therapy and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD manifests through anxiety, flashbacks, depression, panic attacks, and dissociation. However, it’s not only people who are faced with life and death situations that get PTSD afterward. Research shows that stress-invoking events in one’s life can also result in PTSD.

An example of PTSD  from childhood illness is that of 12-year-old Joshua (pseudonym). Since birth, Joshua suffered from severe croup attacks twice a month until he was six years old. When he had the attack Joshua had to be rushed to the hospital emergency often in a state of panic.  There he would be given steroid injections and nebulized for three to four days, a regimen that was extremely stress-inducing and traumatic for him and his parents.

Years after Joshua had outgrown the croup attacks he continued to remain very sensitive to any type of pain or harm to his body so much so that he would be very scared and panic at every small incident involving his health. Even a minor cut would leave him begging for medication immediately. Because of this, Joshua avoided rough play with fellow boys as well as competitive sports. He became a nervous patient, and even minor illnesses were a cause of hysteria for him.

As mentioned earlier, trauma is stored in the non-verbal part of the brain together with feelings and bodily sensations. So when the senses trigger the sensations, it makes the individual feel the trauma again in real-time. This is why it’s imperative to involve the sensory organs when addressing trauma.

Art therapy helps a person reach parts of the brain that are non-verbal, and due to its multi-sensory nature can tap into the sensory brain. The art therapist is experienced and trained to provide a safe space for the client to be able to process the traumatic memories and negative emotions through creative expression without re-traumatizing the client.