Can people transcend trauma into self-empowerment, healing and personal freedom through structured and systematic Art Therapy?
While many therapists have an undying faith in the capacity of talk to resolve trauma, for many it is not so simple. Some find it impossible to put traumatic experience into words, with all the limitations of language, and the very real fears of shame and rejection. I believe this is where benefits of therapeutic group Art Therapy can be instrumental in the healing and recovery process.
Group and individual Art therapy can help clients in all stages of recovery including:
Before revisiting the trauma story, whereby foundations are built through supportive relationship with self and others to feel safe in their bodies and their environment.
Telling the trauma story through self-expression and processing the many emotions and challenging thoughts related to their story.
Integrating the trauma story into the present and moving forward.
This post will focus on Art Therapy used before revisiting the trauma story, when foundations can be built through supportive relationship with self and others to feel safe in their bodies and their environment.
If we begin therapy by focusing on the trauma story itself, there is a risk of emotional overload or re-traumatisation. Early work should focus instead on restoring a sense of safety, on helping the client to discover and draw on their resources, on building connections, and for developing tools for self-regulation and self-awareness.
An important part of healing is to repair a sense of separateness within ourselves and from others. The relationship we have with ourselves is just as important to healing as our connections to the people around us. Through group art therapy we can build human community, a support system of shared experiences within a circle of nurturing people. We can allow ourselves to be seen, heard and understood. It is instrumental to find safe places to express the pain of trauma, as safe, trustworthy and authentic relationships are at the heart of recovery. It is within this context that we can develop compassion for others, and compassion for ourselves, by becoming more aware that everyone is in the same boat with the same reality of human struggle. In this way, we can feel for the plight of others and for ourselves, and lessen the isolation of trauma.
At the core of recovery is self-awareness. Only when we can consciously access the emotional brain through self-awareness, can we really feel and become aware of our inner experience. Trauma can make people feel like 'somebody else' or like 'nobody', detached and disassociated, so using art therapy activities to help clients get back in touch with self and with their body is crucial to recovery.
Added to this, mindful visualisation art therapy practices can help to bring calm before dealing with the trauma story itself. Grounding and mindfulness skills will help clients remain in the present moment, and encourage them to notice their inner experience when they are feeling annoyed, nervous or anxious.
Furthermore, body mind practices can help clients label their emotions, and observe the interplay between their thoughts and physical sensations within the body. Developing these skills will help clients know how to calm and sooth themselves enough to effectively manage intense emotions, which will then allow them to safely revisit the past.
Next time...Telling the trauma story through self-expression and processing the many emotions and challenging thoughts related to their story.
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