Art + Trauma Recovery - Humantold
Art + Trauma Recovery

Art + Trauma Recovery

Juli Walchuk, MHC-LP September 22, 2023

Processing traumatic experiences can be deeply painful and challenging. Creative endeavors and Art Therapy can help in the healing process.

Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone took up creative hobbies – knitting, painting, woodworking, and breadmaking? If you’re like me, maybe you finished an entire adult coloring book in an attempt to manage the anxiety and fear of that time. Art can be a helpful tool in coping with difficult emotions. Beyond aiding in the alleviation of acute anxiety, engaging in creative pursuits can facilitate the processing of the difficult emotions stemming from traumatic experiences.

Unfortunately, most of us have either experienced or will experience at least one traumatic event in our lives. People vary greatly in how they react to trauma, with some bouncing back quickly while others may develop distressing mental health and physiological symptoms. There is a growing number of therapeutic approaches that aim to heal the consequences of trauma; one such approach is Art Therapy. Let’s break down some of the details of trauma and how art fits into trauma recovery. 

Trauma-resulting conditions

Trauma is commonly defined as a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. Some examples of traumatic events include physical violence or assault, war, abuse, death, transportation accidents, natural disasters, and discrimination, among others. Trauma can also refer to the emotional response a person has in reaction to that event. 

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD  is a condition that may be diagnosed after someone endures a traumatic event, like those listed above, and experiences mental health and physiological symptoms for at least one month following the traumatic event. 

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Low mood
  • Social isolation. 

What is Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

ASD is another DSM diagnosis that is lesser known but shares significant symptom overlap with PTSD. The difference lies in the duration. ASD can be diagnosed 3 days to 4 weeks following the traumatic event, whereas PTSD is longer term and can only be diagnosed once symptoms persist for one month or longer. Some diagnosed with ASD in the immediate aftermath may go on to be diagnosed with PTSD, but this is not necessarily the case if psychological intervention (or just the passing of time) helps in symptom reduction by the one-month mark. 

How Art Therapy helps heal trauma 

Art Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that utilizes art-making and creative expression to help patients gain insight, reduce distress, process emotions and thoughts in a safe space, and increase resilience. Art Therapy may include a range of mediums and activities, like drawing, painting, sculpting, journaling, pottery, theatrical and musical arts. 

Art therapy can be done regardless of someone’s artistic skill level and the focus is not on the finished product but on the healing power of the art-making process. 

Trauma experiences can elicit an array of emotions, including shame, rage, terror, and unworthiness, that may feel impossible to talk about openly. For those who experience flashbacks, recounting traumatic memories can be triggering and lead to emotional dysregulation. Similarly, child trauma survivors may not have the vocabulary or cognitive tools to verbally process their experience. For these reasons and more, regular talk therapy may not always be the most appropriate intervention; Art Therapy can provide an alternative. 

Creative expression and art-making allow for processing emotions and integrating traumatic memories while participating in activities that are soothing and grounding. Working with your hands to create something engages multiple senses, which can be especially helpful for those who experience somatic and physiological trauma symptoms. Engaging in handiwork, such as sculpting, can also reduce hyperarousal and hypervigilance and help with developing self-regulation skills. Art serves as a channel for the things that feel impossible to express verbally. 

Trauma can be an isolating experience and the idea of trauma processing may be daunting, but an empathic clinician can guide you in better understanding your experience and yourself through art. If you are interested in trying Art Therapy, reach out to Humantold’s intaketeam to get matched with a therapist and begin your trauma-healing journey.

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