What is trauma?
Trauma is psychological and physiological in nature. It has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing and is a subjective experience that is difficult to put into words. Many of us have experienced trauma over the course of our lives – it doesn’t have to be something as significant as war, an accident, medical incident or sexual abuse. Seemingly normal and ordinary event can cause people to develop trauma symptoms. It can be anything that we interpret as dangerous or that creates a nervous system reaction of fight or flight where the body freezes and dissociates to the degree that we are wounded or paralyzed. When the body cannot rectify its interpretation of the situation as critical to our safety, we find ourselves left with mental, emotional and physical manifestations of wounds that are imprinted upon our body. It may reveal itself through repeated and intrusive memories that tear apart our sense of security and ultimately affects our trust in the universe, the development of our relationships and the day to day living of our lives.
Going beyond words
Unlike other therapies, Expressive Arts Therapy and arts-based approaches provides a safe place to express pain. Art is influential and powerful and has many positive effects. Art making has the benefit of facilitating more positive and regulated emotions, offers a container of safety, creates feelings of relaxation, integrates fragmented traumatic memories, helps rescript trauma memories, and soothes mind and body. As a brain-body approach, art and the use of images helps the survivor explore feelings that would be more traumatizing if they were communicated verbally. Art opens us up to conversations about traumatic memories. By utilizing art, survivors are at less of a risk for triggering flashbacks of the original trauma.
Expressive arts therapy is hands on and involves taking action – something that helps in creating self-sufficiency, self-efficacy, and autonomy. In doing so, it emphasizes problem solving and flexibility. We are better able to handle stressful situations that come our way – to resolve difficult experiences and bend or adapt to life circumstances that challenge us.
“What are you experiencing in your body?”
Counselling with the arts provides space to explore trauma and offers a way of releasing stored memories and feelings, allowing an outlet for expression and releasing “stuckness” of trauma. The hands-on, kinetic and kinistetic aspect of creating art can facilitate healing and guide people to help them recapture their natural resilience – we do this by becoming aware of our body sensations. I frequently ask client’s what they are experiencing in their bodies and the voiced sensations come to life through attention and develop into art expressions. The body responds to stress, which is communicated in non-verbal ways – we share without words about the somatic experience of trauma. When we become aware of body sensations, we befriend the body and we are able to move out of trauma back into balance.
Rescripting the Trauma Story
Healing trauma requires compassion for oneself, patience and understanding. They say time heals all wounds but sometimes therapy is needed to create lasting change and to resolve these wounds.
One of the goals of healing trauma and PTSD is in revising the trauma story. We seek to help people change narratives through revision of memories, events and ideas of what happened. This is done through exploring the survivor’s personal story through toys, sand tray, clay and images, as well as role play and enactment, in order to promote healthier endings. When we imagine new meanings, we bring together painful experiences, and integrate them into the framework of stuck memories so we can process the event and move on.
Trauma affects us all, and therefore it’s important to be able to work through overwhelming big reactions to stress through the arts. Art is therapeutic and beneficial in healing trauma, and when words fail you, is a safe haven to explore wounded themes in our lives. Stressor after stressor starts to wear you down and limits capacity for resilience – working with thoughts and inner images that appear can help you get past your defense mechanisms and form a new coherent narrative or story that is much needed to create new experiences of sufficiency, self-control and hope for the future.