Telling the trauma story...

Art therapy is a powerful way for clients to tell the trauma story through self-expression, and on doing so, to process the many emotions and challenging thoughts related to their story.

The sensory and tactile properties of art making can tap into the sensory aspects of trauma experiences to communicate inner pain. When working with traumatic memories, we must be able to access ‘body memories’ of the trauma through the felt sense before we can begin to find emotional healing and wellbeing.

The process of art making serves as a powerful way to access the felt sense, as well as the body’s memories of the trauma, and then transform the emotions attached to them.

Drawing in the art therapy context can be a particularly beneficial form of expression to constructing trauma narratives. Memories determine the interpretation of a traumatic event, and for many clients it remains at a symbolic level where there are no words to describe it. In this way the memory needs to be symbolically represented. Drawing can provide the link between disassociated memories at a symbolic level and integration.

Drawing provides a way to tell personal stories, and to translate traumatic experiences into narratives. Through drawing, a client can externalise their experience and create a visible projection of self, thoughts and feelings. This can help them move from a passive internal powerless relationship with the trauma to an active control of the experience. In other words, the client can externalise it in a symbolic way to gain back power.

This type of therapy in a group setting is particularly beneficial. Through drawing in a group setting, others can see into the experience, view it as the person views it with all of the emotional reactions, and be supported by other group members throughout the process.

It is important to remember that drawing tasks related to the theme of the trauma can trigger sensory memories. It is vital here to stay at a sensory level to help clients to process the trauma as a sensory experience, and ensure any intervention is done at a sensory level. For example, asking clients where the hurt is felt in the body, or to identify what smells, sights and sounds are associated with the experience, will help them identify the sensory struggle. This approach can engage people in their own healing, as they experience the release of frightening sensations while gaining control of them at the same time in a supportive setting.

Drawing can also be used to reframe memories by restructuring them into a meaningful narrative to develop a different perspective. The drawer finds power in the restructuring, as he/ she orders the narrative in a way to ensure their thoughts and emotions are manageable. In this way those memories can lose their power to act as stimuli for intense fear and emotional reactions. They are no longer a victim, but a survivor, which changes the mentality and the thinking. By reframing a situation this way, or taking on a new perspective, you can help adjust those thought patterns (and break them over time) leaving you feeling more in control.

Some of the most valuable experiences in therapy come when you experience a shift in perspective, and in a group setting, role modelling and supportive networks can help gain those new perspectives.

Next time...Integrating the trauma story into the present and moving forward.

References and resources:

Body Keeps Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Bessel Van Der Kolk, 2015. Penguin UK.

Handbook of Art Therapy 2nd Ed. Cathy A. Malchiodi. 2012. Guilford Publications.

Art Therapy Sourcebook. Cathy A. Malchiodi. 2006. McGraw-Hill Education.