Mental Health

Art Therapy: An Ideal Approach to Trauma Work

By May 13, 2024No Comments

This blog is authored by Bear Pallasch, MAAT, QMHP, a member of the IntraSpectrum Counseling clinical team.

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What is art therapy even anyway?
So glad you asked! Art therapy is one of the many experiential therapeutic interventions that allows a person to visually and physically process emotions, thoughts and feelings. It is founded in the theory that the art-making process is healing. It helps the client resolve internal and external conflicts, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness.

Trauma’s nasty legacy and the brain
The legacy of trauma is that the past comes to haunt the present. Neuroscience researchers widely accept that vivid, unprocessed traumatic memories are stored predominantly in the right hemisphere of the brain, where those memories live unorganized. The part of the brain that is severely affected is the amygdala, which is the part of our brain that is responsible for processing our emotions. It is also the fear department of our brains. When the amygdala becomes activated by trauma flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and images, and unbidden body sensations can occur. It can feel like past traumas are being experienced as if they were happening in the present.

For people with trauma, these emotional memories are often overwhelming and can be so powerful that the person loses contact with reality. Cognitive functioning can be greatly impacted by traumatic stress. Trauma survivors are fundamentally stuck in defensive response patterns from past experiences. There are a variety of ways these post-traumatic symptoms can manifest such as avoidance, numbing, dissociation, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, negative or distorted self-beliefs, and/or chronic states of dysregulation. These symptoms may have been adaptive during a past traumatic event, but are generally considered maladaptive in a present, non-threatening context. Traumatized people may respond to external stimuli as if the past were present because their internal alarm system has been set up to respond to stress in this specific way.

What is the goal of trauma therapy?
The goal of trauma therapy is to move the survivor away from being held captive by the unspeakable past to engage more fully in the present. To do this, traumatized people need to develop tools for regaining control over dysregulated responses. This is no easy task. Emotional memory is strong, vivid, and long lasting. When traumatic memory is triggered, the amygdala predominates over other parts of the brain. Those other parts of the brain responsible for language, analysis, and context, are essentially shut down during trauma recall. For healing to occur, traumatic memories need to be transformed, contextualized, and given meaning, but words alone may be inadequate for addressing the negative imprint of trauma that is lodged in the emotional, right brain. It follows that trauma may best be identified, desensitized, and resolved through some of the newer nonverbal, experiential, and body-based interventions. Something like art therapy.

Where trauma therapy and art therapy meet
Sometimes clients who engage in art therapy interventions are clients that have found talk therapy to be limiting or ineffective in their ability to heal. These are often people who have difficulty verbally expressing what they have experienced or are currently going through. The newer trauma treatments are based on the idea that verbally telling the story is not, in and of itself, enough.

Because art-making engages both mind and body, an individual in art therapy can rapidly access traumatic memory and remain focused in the present. The art therapy process engages multiple senses and provides a unique vehicle for expression where words can fall short. Art therapy uses both hemispheres of the brain, making it a whole-brain experience. Remember our friend, the amygdala? Well, not only is it responsible for processing our emotions, but it is also responsible for processing imagery and visual stimuli. Expression through art leverages the amygdala’s visual capacity to be able to process trauma. Ultimately, artistic creation can help with trauma processing and help trauma resolution to occur.

Examples of art therapy interventions for trauma:

  • Using graphic narrative drawings to address foundation traumas. People can process their trauma stories by capturing those implicit memories that are the raw materials of flashbacks and other intrusive experiences.
  • Intentional embroidery. Sewing and embroidery are very somatic art activities. They require a person to be slow and intentional with their stitches. Embroidery can be quite an embodied experience because of the care and physicality of the art-making process.
  • Bilateral scribble drawings. Armed with markers, you use both hands to scribble to your heart’s content! This allows the emotional side of your brain where the trauma lives to speak to connect and speak to your cognitive side of your brain. The physicality of the process and this being a whole-brain activity assists with regulation.

Conclusion
It is important to recognize art therapy and trauma work as brain-based interventions. Hopefully, this gives you an idea of how the role of art therapy can aid in recovery!

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This blog is authored by Bear Pallasch, MAAT, QMHP, a member of the IntraSpectrum Counseling clinical team. IntraSpectrum Counseling is Chicago’s leading psychotherapy practice dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, and we strive to provide the highest quality mental health care for multicultural, identity, kink, polyamorous, and intersectional issues. For anyone needing affirming and validating support, please click here or contact us at help@intraspectrum-chicago.com.