What is Art Therapy?
Art therapy, also sometimes referred to as art psychotherapy, is a counselling approach that incorporates the creating of artwork into the therapeutic process. Creating art provides a means of directly tapping into the subconscious mind and in doing so provides insights and directions for conversations that could be otherwise missed. Art therapy also enables traumatic experiences and associated thoughts and feelings to be processed in a safe and efficient manner which talking alone cannot achieve.
What does trauma-informed mean?
A lot of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, stem from traumatic experiences in one’s personal past or their family system. By acknowledging this, core issues can be address as well as the symptoms that they create. In a trauma-informed space, safety, collaboration, and awareness of triggers are of the utmost importance; hence, these are respected and incorporated into the therapy process.
Benefits of trauma-informed art therapy
Art therapy and healing trauma go hand in hand. This relates back to neuroscience principles; for a general overview of this read the article Art Psychotherapy and Neuroscience. More specifically, when someone experiences trauma, the brain that controls cognitive functions (ie. reasoning, memory, attention, and language) doesn’t work as efficiently as it could. The brain can switch to automatic and fight, flight, fawn, or freeze responses dominate. Basically, the nervous system’s takes over and either pumps adrenal so as quick movements to escape real or perceived dangers can be made, or the body becomes rigid and cannot move as an alternative means of protection. Simply “moving on” or “letting go” of traumatic experiences solemn works. Such approaches are often glorified repression tactics which result in trauma symptoms still being present days, weeks, months, or years later. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in trauma describes phenomena in detail in his book The Body Keeps the Score. Further, he stipulates that reminders of traumatic events have a way of interfering with one’s life until that are suitably addressed. Van der Kolk (and other researchers) suggests that simply talking about traumas is often ineffective. On a physiological level, this is due to a break in the connection between the thinking and feeling parts of the brain. Art therapy bypasses this problem by not relying on cognitive functions. By mark making, hand modelling (clay, wax, or plasticine), and being creative in other ways, trauma can be expressed and released in an effective manner, thus improving mental health and wellbeing. While participating in any artistic activity can be beneficial, doing so with the support and guidance of a professional therapist, means a greater level of healing can be achieved.
When discussing trauma it is useful to keep in mind that there are two main types. There are big “T” trauma events which are life-threatening occurrences and there are small “t” events that impact one’s confidence and self-agency. Below is a table that provides examples of each. While most people automatically think of big T trauma events as being of significance, little t traumas that remain unaddressed can have drastic long term effects on mental health. Once trauma has been processed via the emotional part of the brain – which it does so when someone is being creative in art therapy – then cognitive functions begin to improve.
Examples of big “T” trauma
- Physical, sexual, verbal assault
- Vehicle accidents
- Natural disasters
- Difficult divorce or death situations
- War-related experiences
- Child abuse; neglect and other intrusions on safety
Examples of little “t” trauma
- Being bullied
- Passive-aggressive treatment from family, friends, work, etc
Both forms of trauma can have serious impacts on a person’s mental health and lead to PTSD symptoms such as: nightmares, insomnia, intrusive memories, flashbacks, lack of concentration, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, irritability, rage, anger, dissociation, self-destructive tendencies, avoidance, mistrust, poor memory, negative self-image, guilt, shame, and hyper-vigilance.
Kolk, B. van der. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin.