Using Art Therapy to Overcome Trauma

Using Art Therapy to Overcome Trauma

Trauma is unfortunately much too common and can have long lasting effects. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) website, an estimated 5.2 million Americans aged 18 to 54 suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a given year. Unresolved trauma can produce many different responses, ranging from anxiety, panic, and hypervigilance to depression, numbness, and social withdrawal, often within the same person.

Various cues can trigger extreme emotional and behavioral reactions, and trauma victims commonly struggle with insomnia, nightmares, concentration problems, and emotional dissociation. Many traditional therapies can help people overcome trauma, but sometimes a more creative approach is needed to have a breakthrough. One such approach is expressive arts therapy.

Types of Art Therapy

Art therapy is considered a complementary approach to traditional models, and most forms of art can be utilized, including the following:

  • Dance
  • Music
  • Art
  • Drama
  • Writing

The creative expressions do not always address the experience directly, but many times it does in various ways, including the following:

  • Paint or draw visual memories of the experience.
  • Write a short story or play related to what happened.
  • Keep a diary of dreams or recurrent memories.
  • Craft a song that recounts memories or emotions.

Even if it does not directly relate to the events, the act of creative expression can be therapeutic for many patients.

How Art Therapy Works

The prevailing idea is that creative expression and exercising the imagination help people process negative memories, feelings, and experiences. In 2003, the American Journal of Public Health did a study on drum therapies that confirmed its usefulness with recovering addicts who often relapse. Patients enthusiastically embraced the drumming, and there were several positive outcomes, including the following:

  • Helped release emotional trauma
  • Encouraged the reintegration of self
  • Reduced self-centeredness and isolation
  • Fostered a greater sense of connectedness

Other studies have reached similar conclusions about the therapeutic effectiveness of the arts, including the following:

  • Helps trauma victims reframe and integrate the experience
  • Provides an opportunity to reestablish personal attachments
  • Accesses different parts of the brain than traditional therapies
  • Promotes a sense of safety as positive attachments develop
  • Allows for disclosure that may be difficult to put into words

Significant research has concluded that art therapy can be especially helpful in normalizing experiences for children. As noted by the 2008 Psychology Today article “When Trauma Happens, Children Draw,” art therapies have been extensively used to help children in violent regions of Africa like Darfur.

Trauma and Addiction

Many people develop a substance abuse problem as an unhealthy means to cope with trauma and self-medicate its symptoms. Just as art therapy can also play a role in addiction recovery, many other overlapping therapies can be used to address both issues, including the following:

  • Behavioral therapies aimed at improving mental and emotional responses
  • Identification of internal and external cues that trigger memories and cravings
  • Group therapy to build support structures and verbalize thoughts and feelings
  • Integrated screenings and treatment for any additional mental health disorders
  • Optional holistic therapies that promote healing and overall wellness

Treatment centers can also provide medically supervised detoxification as needed and recommend other complementary therapies that may be useful.