Trauma + Art Therapy

"Trauma is a disorder of the perception of time, of the body, and of the Self." - Scaer

There are so many variables to consider when looking at the subjective experience of individuals exposed to trauma. This makes PTSD and its manifestations difficult to define, prevent and treat.

We know that by providing #biopsychosocial support to young mothers/fathers/families, babies, children and youth, we can, at the very least, establish environments that promote wellbeing and #healthyattachment. This enhances mental flexibility and strengthens #resilience (that ability to bounce back), but ultimately, there is no magic formula to prevent the varying and unique effects of trauma on the brain and body.

What is consistent is that #trauma causes long lasting biological changes - this can be seen over time both psychologically and physically. After the initial shock and awe, the results of trauma on the mind can lead to changes in personality, dissociation, addiction, and might be the cause of emotional and mental disorders including adult neuroses and or psychoses.

Unresolved trauma also leads to an increase in disease such autonomic regulation disorders (IBS, migraines, fibromyalgia), #chronicpain, immune and endocrine system regulation problems (diabetes), and #cognition and sleep disorders. It is the root of much interpersonal upheaval that could lead to divorce, job loss, disruptive relationships, and other negative lifestyle habits.

How does the body and brain process trauma?

During a traumatic event, the body sends danger signals to the brain, and our primal instincts kick in immediately. This means that our more evolved brain processes, including the parts of the brain responsible for executive functions, like language, reasoning, and autobiographical memory, shut down. It does this for a number of reasons, likely to conserve energy for efficient survival reactions.

Upon receiving danger signals from the environment and body, the #amygdala attempts to manage the crisis. And, unlike nonthreatening experiences, which are processed as memories in various parts of the brain, the amygdala processes and stores these events as fear based memories in our lower brain. Research suggests the amygdala also attaches emotional significance to memories, and is capable of forming new memories related to fear.

With the brain and body on high alert, the amygdala classifies traumatic memory visually and in the form of bodily sensations. This has its advantages, namely for the sake of survival; however, one of the disadvantages, evidenced by trying to process trauma on a cognitive level, is that the amygdala and higher brain order don't "talk to each other" in a way that can make sense of the trauma.

Art Therapy: The Ideal Intervention

Through art, these two brain regions can learn to communicate about the trauma once the injurious event is processed as a new nonthreatening experience.

Researchers, like Lusebrink, suggest that our sense of touch and sight are connected to our brain’s fear centre. This makes #arttherapy an ideal intervention to help when working with traumatic memory.

The act of art making helps to access both visually stored memory and body memory. Working with bristle brushes, clay, paints and other tactile materials reconnect us with physical sensation. This can have some immediate benefits as it offers a release from pent up stress, acute anxiety and #depression. Also, it allows the client to visually process the negative aspects of the experience when there are no words to articulate - especially great for children, seniors, and those impacted by language disabilities.

Since art making is mostly an unconscious process, it's not overwhelming. This allows the client to resolve the trauma at their own pace.

When one creates art, one also becomes a witness to the new creation. The art transforms into a metaphor or symbol of the collection of experiences. In this sense, the witness is able to process the object/art with a new lens. The reasoning part of the brain can now access and intellectualize the experience and re-cycle the experience as a wise wound. (See my article on Kintsugi.)

The Role of the Art Therapist

The role of the art therapist is tantamount because he or she help the client form new and healthy memories about a horrific event.

The art therapist offers support by delicately discussing the work, allowing the client to find new words to describe their experience. When the client is ready to process the event at a cognitive level, the therapist can guide the client by adding narrative and context to the artwork. This is what creates a new experience. Thus, the art therapy experience helps to change the old memory into a "less threatening" memory that gets stored as autobiographical memory.

This doesn't mean that the traumatic event is wiped out. Far from it. It simply means that through artistic expression, the brain relearns how to interpret the traumatic experience differently, though the rational mind, where it can make sense and formulate that "it" is not in immediate danger.

If you or someone you know and love is experiencing trauma symptoms, contact me to see how art therapy can help. It is the ultimate mindfulness practice.

Holistically Yours,


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