Spiritual bypassing and religious abuse: The Reason Why Everyone Needs to Be Trauma-Informed

“Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not understand.”

~ Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, pg.43

Alan John Miller, is the cult leader of a group called Divine Truth. He convinces his disciples that he is the reincarnation of Jesus; that’s right, this charismatic Australian believes he is the big Christ man himself. From the authoritative stance of being the Son of God, Miller gives advice to his followers that inevitably leads them into forsaking their family and friends. Coercive and controlling behaviour like this is common amongst cult leaders, but from watching the investigative documentary (see link below) it occurred to me that much of Miller’s manipulation would be ineffective if victims or potential victims understood the basic principles of trauma. 

About three minutes into the 7NEWS documentary, we see footage of Miller addressing a hall full of Christians who are searching for answers to some of life’s difficulties. Miller tells them that addictions are standing in the way of their relationship with God and that by speaking his truth he can heal their emotional wounds. A few seconds later we see a white board which illustrates his approach.

Source: 7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

The journalist aptly points out that Miller, or Jesus as he prefers to be called, is speaking New Age pop-psychology. The notion that addictions have some spiritual cause, moreover, that one can overcome “sinful” or “evil” temptations through the mysteries of a “Holy Spirit” has little grounding in light of contemporary neuroscience. I am very open to the notion that there is a metaphysical world that our ordinary senses cannot identify. However, I am equally open to the notion that there are things in our physical world that once appeared to be supernatural can but now be scientifically explained, hence, “gurus” who could once get away with spreading misinformation cannot do so as easily. 

There is an expanding school of thought that addictions, and most mental health conditions, are caused by trauma. Gabor Maté (author of The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) and Bessel Van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score) are in my top five favourite researchers who actively work to educate society about the link between trauma, addictions and mental health issues. 

At the core of understanding trauma and how it affects thoughts, emotions, and behaviour is the vagus nerve. This all important nerve begins at the base of the brain and runs down the spine. It branches off throughout the body and is the major highway for sending signals to and from the brain and throughout the body. Burnt your finger on the stove? It is through nerves in your fingers that link to the vagus nerve that pain signals are sent to your brain. Commonly, the signal sent back will be to remove your finger from the heat source. All this can happen in an instant. You may also apply learned behaviour, like placing your finger in cool water to stop the burning process. Alternatively, you may scream, call for help, or become confused and not know what to do. Neurologically, the difference between a calm or heightened reaction is how much access to cognitive functions you have. When presented with threatening situations, the nervous system directs all its energy into survival, hence digestion stops, heart rate increases, and energy is pulled away from non-essential higher order cognitive processes, thus thinking is affected. 

Several factors contribute to how a person reacts to trauma, namely, how, when and why the trauma occurred. Reactions are also heavily dependant upon prior life experiences. If one has had experiences of nurture and support then their reactions are more likely to be calm and measured. Alternatively, if one has been raised in an environment where crying in pain from being burnt is not acceptable (sadly, this happens), emotions like fear can overwrite other reactions. A person’s survival instincts generally fall into the categories of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. 

Now imagine you’ve been hurt emotionally. If one knows strategies that will elevate the pain through healthy behaviours (like going for a walk, meditating, or seeking therapy) then cognitive functions may prevail. But what if these things aren’t known? What if crying for help does not work? Unfortunately, many people, especially young children, find themselves in this position. When emotional pain is unaddressed, the person’s vagus nerve still sends signals that there is a problem, however, when the desire for relief is not addressed, it gets stored in the body. That is where addictions emerged. 

Maté defines an addiction as any behaviour that provides temporary relief but causes harm in the long run. Aside from the obvious harmful addictions of drugs, smoking, alcohol, and some sexual activities, a person could develop an addiction to seemingly less harmful activities like shopping or excessive exercise. From Van der Kolk’s work, the message is clear; trauma stays in the body till issues are addressed. Breaking the cycle of trauma responses is hard, especially if the nervous system’s pattern of adverse responses was set in childhood. Essentially, children who grow up in abusive environments can become accustomed to anxiety states being normalised, therefore, it can feel strange when their body is learning how to relax without the use of addictions. Adopting one addiction for another can be an endless cycle till healing takes place at a nervous system level.

Ultimately, healing requires soothing the nervous system which, in turn, means working with the vagus nerve because it’s a major component of our anatomy that links the brain with all other parts of the body. There are many approaches that can be used to achieve this; no one size that suits all. Breathing exercises, trauma-informed yoga, art therapy, psychotherapy, journal writing, are a few examples of what some people find useful. Miller does not use any of these. 

In the spirit of new aged psycho babble, the documentary shows Miller encouraging people to enter into a state of anxiety, that is, a state in which their nervous system is activated. He achieves this by requesting they find trauma in their family history (not a difficult request). At the 4:30 min mark there is a difficult to watch scene in which Miller asks a person to “connect” with their childhood rage of being oppressed by their mother. We see the man shaking and trembling as he recalls his past. Miller stands by, almost excited by the emotional pain he’s elicited. He offers no emotional support, comfort, or suggestions for how the man can emotionally or cognitively process the event. Due to the absence of addressing trauma at the nervous system level, the exercise can be perceived as re-traumatising and, in turn, it places Miller in a position of power over his followers. One could even suggest that they shift their addictive behaviours from drugs, shopping, or whatever, onto being addicted to his approval. 

To add complexity to the situation, there is almost value in Miller’s approach to childhood trauma, that is, when the man trembles while recalling a time in his childhood where he felt unsupported, it is reminiscent of Peter Levine’s work (another of my fave psychologists). Levine has done extensive research on the role of the nervous system and anxiety, and he reports that shaking is an effective means of releasing stored energy from past trauma. However, Levine’s work is an evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice that incorporates psychoeducation. Moreover, Levine is not a cult leader who tries to get people to commit to his total control. In contrast, when Miller evokes activation of the nervous system he is not doing so in a therapeutic manner. Miller does not explain the body-mind connection through autonomical functions, rather, he explains things in terms of his interpretation of the Christian Bible. After all, he is the messiah, Jesus, right!?! 

Given that Miller may by successfully activating the vagus nerve through his techniques, it is understandable that some people find relief and therefore attribute this to Miller having some divine qualities. However, Miller’s full process of deliverance from addictions stops short of being effective therapy. There is no directed resolve of stored emotions, just the instruction of feeling them, which is not enough. Triggered but unresolved trauma energy can do more harm than good. Essentially, I see the situation as being one in which a lack of understanding of how the brain and body functions in response to trauma is being used to manipulate people into giving up money, dreams, and relationships, moreover, doing so fulfils Miller’s self-declared grandiosity. Given Miller’s narcissistic tendencies, I am highly sceptical of his overall approaches being in line with evidence-based therapy. Research about people who have been in cults, suggests they are more traumatised by the leaders’ control and manipulation than anything they experienced prior to joining. 


Abuse tendencies that are promoted through religious ideologies is being recognised as such a significant issue that the term spiritual bypassing has been coined. This refers to spiritual explanations that dismiss or belittle real trauma. For example, “it was the will of God” or “what doesn’t kill you makes us stronger” or to just “let things go”. Such directives are more likely to encourage dissociation than healing. Dissociation (distancing oneself from reality) can feel euphoric, therefore, spiritual practices that encourage it may appear (at surface level) to be “real”, however, dissociation is actually a serious mental health concern.

"To many people, spirituality becomes a sort of crutch used as a way of standing back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and sometimes this is necessary. We all need support at some time or another in our lives. But the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug for which we become dependent on in order to bypass the darker elements of our lives."

~ Aletheia Luna, What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types)

Miller’s approach to Christianity blends half truths about psychology with his personal narrative of Jesus. It is a classic example of partial-truths being more dangerous than outright lies. 

"In any given psychiatric hospital at any given time, there are probably several Jesus Christs. A colleague once told me of a group psychotherapy situation at a state hospital in which there were three Jesus' in the same group."

~ Alan Gettis, The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look

Contrary to stereotypes of destructive cult leaders, they do not necessarily have adverse mental health conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar. In the case of Miller, it appears he has some sort of basic delusion disorder (I cannot give an official diagnosis). The narrative he’s created is not very original; believing oneself to a Messiah is common. Mental health clinics around the world do not have a shortage of people who believe they are Jesus. Unsurprisingly, western countries are more likely to see people who believe they are Christ, while in other locations, individuals with delusional disorders may believe they are another grandiose personality like the Buddha, or a Scandinavian God, or whatever is a significant religious influence in their culture. 

Besides the potential for narcissism and delusional disorder, Miller demonstrates sound cognitive functions. Thus, there is some need to re-evaluate stereotypes of cult leaders. Further, in line with the school of thought that suggests that most mental health issues have a basis in trauma, one may ask what is Miller’s trauma? Perhaps if he received adequate support for whatever this was he would not be in the current situation of re-traumatising others? 

In conclusion, any religious ideology that makes claims about healing trauma warrants scrutiny. Within Australia, the issue of cult leaders, spiritual advisors, and some personal coaches, presenting misleading psychological advice often goes unrecognised. While Freedom of Religion is important, it is equally important to recognise when self-proclaimed leaders are using pseudoscience psychology that leads to spiritual bypassing and religious abuse. Continued education of trauma may save a lot of people from becoming victims of “Messiah’s” who do more harm than good.

References

7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

Aletheia Luna. (2021, February 2). What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types) ⋆ LonerWolf. LonerWolf. https://lonerwolf.com/what-is-spiritual-bypassing/

Brown, J. (2019). Grounded Spirituality. Enrealment Press.

Cox, C. (2019, February 25). Types of Delusions. WebMD; WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/delusions-types

Dan Brown Quote: “Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not underst…” (n.d.). Quotefancy.com. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from https://quotefancy.com/quote/1018478/Dan-Brown-Since-the-beginning-of-time-spirituality-and-religion-have-been-called-to-fill

Gabor Maté. (2018). In the realm of hungry ghosts close encounters with addiction. London Vermilion.

Gettis, A. (1987). The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look. Journal of Religion and Health, 26(2), 131–136. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27505915

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger – healing trauma : the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.

Rosen, S. (2014). Cults: A natural disaster — Looking at cult involvement through a trauma lens. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 5, 12–29.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Hysteria to PTSD: Freud’s hypnotism still has some people in a trance

“… [the victim] needs to stop thinking about themselves as nice and harmless because it is the nice and harmless person that is exploitable by the malevolent psychopath and that’s not moral virtue, that’s just weakness, that’s all it is. It’s naivety, it’s the maintenance of a child-like viewpoint of the world that’s past its expiry date … “

JORDAN PETERSON, 2017

Jordan Peterson* is a controversial fellow and it’s not too difficult to work out why. In a nutshell, I appreciate some aspects of his intellect but he misses the mark completely when it comes to understanding emotional aspects of being human and trauma. This is can be seen in comments like those above when he is discussing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found it quite shocking to hear him speak of someone struggling with trauma as being weak, naive, and childish. My encounters with people with PTSD indicate that they are strong, resourceful, intelligent people who live in a state of hyperviligance. They are constantly in fear that they will meet malevolence around every corner. Further, they don’t think of themselves as nice and harmless. Many are riddled with self-blame and low self-esteem. Peterson’s attitude that trauma victims should toughen up and move on is old fashioned and scientifically unsound. It is highly alarming to see a professional, high-profile psychologist perpetuating myths about PTSD.

Peterson also promotes the view that malevolence can be placed on a scale from relatively insignificant through to extreme. Accordingly, lesser traumatic experiences should be dismissed (Peterson uses the example of child being sexually assaulted by their sibling) and only “extreme” traumatic experiences are of any real significance. Such opinions ignore fundamental aspects of the traumatic experience and promote dissociation.

In the past thirty to forty years, a lot of breakthroughs in research have lead to amazing insights about PTSD. Peterson is in the psychology industry, how could he not be aware of the latest studies? Why is he dispensing out dated psychoanalysis ideas? I can understand why the general public aren’t aware of new research but Peterson has no excuse.

Suggesting PTSD is a sign of weakness, an inability to let go, an indulgence of emotions, or any other belittling connotation can be dangerous because doing so diverts people from getting the support that they really need. Moreover, it constitutes victim-blaming. It appears that Peterson is basing his approach on out-dated information; his views may be seen as aligning with erroneous Freudian psychology.

“Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma.”

Many history books bestow Freud with the glorified title of “father of modern psychoanalysis”. Some even go so far as to praise Freud as the “father of modern psychology”. Both titles suggests that he was intelligent man who should be looked up too. This perception is very misleading. Putting it bluntly, Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma. Nevertheless, his influence was great and many people don’t realise the potential negative consequences of his contributions. The aim of this blog is to explore Freud’s theories so as the errors can be identified and relinquished by community (and Peterson) consciousness.

Firstly, it needs to be explained that Freud never spoke of PTSD. He spoke of hysteria. The term PTSD first became an official diagnosis in 1980 when it was published in the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III)**. Prior to 1980, individuals who presented with symptoms associated with what we now call PTSD were referred as having hysteria, neurasthenia, shell shock or battle fatigue***. Hysteria is the oldest term and it has an extensive history.

Clarifying what is PTSD

Before getting into the heart of the discussion, it’s useful to give a brief overview of PTSD. Traumatic occurrences that can lead to the condition include events, such as rape, assault, war, domestic violence, abuse, natural disasters, vehicle accidents, or smaller, repeated stressful events, such as being bullied, called names, ostracised, neglected, and witnessing others experience trauma (vicious trauma). Other forms of traumas includes physical illness, birth trauma (i.e. significant medical intervention), intergenerational trauma (i.e. negative experiences passed from parent to child via DNA), and collective trauma (i.e. racism, sexism, climate crisis issues, etc.). More information about trauma can be found here.

PTSD symptoms can vary from person to person, however, the following is a general outline of common traits: confusion, irrationality, anxiety, fear; withdrawal from others; mood swings; heightened startle response to stimuli; low self esteem; feeling hopeless, helpless, guilt, shame, numb, and overall sadness. The impact of PTSD can be crippling and it lowers quality of life tremendously.

Regardless of whether a person has several smaller traumatic events or if they have experienced large ones, the effects of PTSD on the body and mind can be equally difficult. Judgments about what the trauma was from are irrelevant; the impact that trauma has on an individual is what matters.

Brief History of Hysteria to PTSD

The word hysteria stems from the Greek word ‘hysterikos’ which refers to a woman’s uterus. The Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates, believed that a woman’s uterus could wander around her body, thus was the cause of heightened and excessive emotional behaviour. Whenever I read this explanation of hysteria I want to laugh. I’m certain that it must be an ancient joke and us modern people are too daft to see the proverbial tongue in cheek. Surely, it’s the same as contemporary satire about men having two brains: one their head and the other in their sexual organs? The Greek philosophers were phenomenal thinkers of mathematics, science, politics, the arts, and yet they believed that a woman’s womb could wander around her body and that sex was required to keep it in the right place! Hmm, maybe this proof that some men think more with their lower brain than the higher one in their head 🙂

Hysteria’s stigma of being a women’s disease has prevailed for millennium. Notions of “crazy” women who are too “weak” to control their emotions often come to mind. (Peterson’s views echo this notion.) The Middle Ages added to the negative connotations by suggesting hysteria was a sign of demonic possession. Links between witchcraft and hysteria have been identified by some historians.

The Renaissance period was an era in which westernised cultures reflected back upon Ancient Greek philosophers. Therefore, a renewal of the connection between hysteria and the sexual behaviour of women had a resurgence. The moral codes of the renaissance differed from that of Ancient Greek, therefore, the apparent need for women to excrete their sexual juices in order to prevent hysteria caused some dilemmas. Nevertheless, hysteria was predominantly viewed as a woman’s issue that was associated with too much or too little sexual activity.

During the seventh century, some significant developments concerning the understandings of hysteria took place. In particular, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), suggested that there was a connection between the mind and the body which caused symptoms. Thomas Willis (1621-1675) suggested the nervous system played a role, and Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) suggested that the male equivalent of hysteria was hypochondria. Perhaps if psychology had continued to follow these lines of investigation we may have arrived at our contemporary understandings of PTSD sooner? Alas, this did not occur.

“Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can be summarised in his Oedipus theory.”

In the late nineteenth century, the unconscious mind and hypnosis dominated psychology and steered understandings of hysteria back to antiquated premises. It is during this era that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) became a prominent figure.

Freud, identified hysteria as being caused by traumatic experiences in one’s childhood which resulted in emotional distress in adulthood. Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can correlates with his Oedipus theory. This theory suggest that all children between the ages of 3-6 unconsciously desire their opposite-sex parent (girls supposedly have the additional problem of penis envy) which causes jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent. The tension of these lustful impulses is, according to Freud, traumatic and can lead to adult hysteria. Closely associated with the Oedipus theory is the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy in which Freud suggests that erectile dysfunction is caused by a man’s desire for a nurturing figure but when they encounter this in a real women they are reminded of their mothers, so therefore need to degrade her to a whore level. To support his views, Freud referred to mythological stories as evidence. Freudian theory goes on to presume absolute authority on how symbols in mythology are to be interpreted and how themes of myths are mirrored in an individual’s life which, of course, is mostly of a sexual nature. Anyone else see any problems with these theories? I’ll unpack some of my interpretations shortly.

Freud’s work then continues with his development of the “talking cure” known as psychoanalysis. The process of psychoanalysis involves allowing a client to talk freeing, in particular, about their dreams and childhood memories whilst the therapist looks for reoccurring themes and/or evidence of a sexual-based dilemmas. The process is founded on the premise that making unconscious desires and lusts conscious through “free association” is cathartic. Interestingly, Freud developed psychoanalysis techniques so as he could help clients who he was not able to hypnotise.

Freudian ideas about psychoanalysis were challenged by his peers but many people still supported them. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Freud, few can argue that his work was highly influential. The spreading of Freudian ideas throughout society occurred through artistic movements such as surrealism, movie references, and the notion of a “Freudian slip of the tongue”. Subsequently, while science rejected most of Freud’s work, pop-culture enabled him to become an icon of how the unconscious mind supposedly works.

“The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology”

As the twentieth century progressed, many other individuals made significant contributions to various aspects of psychology, including Carl Rogers, Burrhus Skinner, Jean Piaget, Ivan Pavlov, John Dewey, Donald Winnicott, Aaron Beck, and more. Theories concerned with behaviour, attachment, social issues, developmental factors, education, and cognitive functioning spread the field of psychology into new domains. Intertwined with psychology research were significant changes in politics, culture, and social values. The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology; when returned service men displayed emotional dysregulation like that traditionally only seen in hysterical women, theories of mental health issues were investigated from new perspectives.

Other factors that contributed to developments in psychological research included the consolidation of scientific procedures, the creation of mood and thinking based measurement scales, the invention of brain scanning technology, the discovery of pharmaceuticals that can alter mental and emotional states, and the application of higher ethical standards in research protocols.

A particularly significant development in psychology occurred within the field of neuroscience. This formally began in the 1960’s when the use of the term “neuro + science” was first used. In brief, neuroscience is a specialised area of psychology that focuses on the nervous system and its related influence on the body, brain, and human behaviour. Its findings have shed much light on mental health conditions which previously mystified professionals. Insights into PTSD have been obtained from sources such as brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrocephalogram (EEG) technology.

The human nervous system is a pathway of nerves which runs throughout every part of the body; energy impulses travel along the nervous system and convey messages back and forth between our senses and our brain. The major conduit of this process occurs via what is called our ‘vagus nerve’. The vagus nerve runs down our spine and spreads out like tree branches throughout our abdominal; finer branches spread throughout our limbs. The vagus nerve connects to all major organs, i.e. in our abdominal it connects to our heart, lungs, and stomach, and in our head it connects to our brainstem. Nerve impulses travel throughout our brain which is divided into three main parts; the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. The signals between sensory organs and the brain operate via two-way messaging. In other words, sensory organs send messages to the brain and parts of the brain can send messages to parts of the body. PTSD disturbs the functioning of the nervous system.

Contemporary Psychology

While studies of hysteria were prominent around the turn of the nineteenth century, the main focus of contemporary psychology could be said to be trauma. These may be viewed as one and the same thing with the caveat that hysteria was traditionally a woman’s diagnosis whereas PTSD diagnoses are gender neutral. PTSD may slightly differ in how it presents in men and women; however, the cause, discomfort, and curative approaches are the same for all genders.

Many experts such as Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Pat Ogden, Stephen Porges, Gabor Matè, Diane Heller, and Brene Brown are actively raising society’s awareness about the implications of unhealed trauma as presented in PTSD symptoms. While each of these aforementioned people approach trauma and healing from slightly different angles, collectively, they are educating society about trauma and the need to address it in a compassionate manner. Further, it is becoming universally accepted that it is not specific aspects of traumatic events that lead to PTSD, rather, it is the imprint that these experiences leave on the physical body.

“Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes”

Contemporary psychology, as supported by neuroscience, views PTSD as a normal response to traumatic experiences. When traumatic or stressful events go beyond an individual’s capacity to cope and/or they don’t have the necessary support to help them recover, then long term PTSD symptoms may develop. Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes – and the energetic charge needs to be released.

Contemporary PTSD treatments are often based on somatic understandings of mind-body connections. In other words, in order to heal trauma symptoms, the physical attributes of a dysregulated nervous system needs to be addressed through embodied approaches so as to improve cognitive functioning. Simultaneously, cognitive processes need to be addressed so as to support the processing of nervous system sensations. Emotions are the key player of the halfway point between bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom trauma therapies.

A person’s ability to overcome adversity without developing PTSD is dependent upon many factors; most prominently, their access to empathetic support. Invalidating a person’s experience and making judgments about them being physically and/or mentally weak, does not help the condition. Moreover, such attitudes are counterproductive and can lead to perpetrating symptoms by promoting shame, guilt, and self-blame.

Freud’s Legacy

On the whole, contemporary psychology research undermines the validity of Freudian theories, from his suggestions of what causes hysteria through to his psychoanalysis practices. It could be argued that contemporary psychoanalysis’ do not follow Freud verbatim, and that attacking Freud when many others have thought along similar lines to him, is a little harsh. In due respect of these considerations, the problem lies in people not taking the time to thoroughly investigate what psychoanalysis is really about (as I didn’t till recently) and the snippets of information that are given constitute a kind of social conditioning that leads to misinformed thinking and behaviour.

It is not possible for Freudian ideas about hysteria and modern theories of trauma to both be correct. They are opposing hypothesises. Ultimately, there is more scientific evidence to support mind-body theories of PTSD.

In the broad scheme of things, I can see how Freud’s theories came about and that they may have even been a necessary step in the process of understanding a PTSD. I can happily give him credit for identifying for that hysteria is based on traumatic childhood experiences that impact adult behaviour. I also appreciate that he saw a link between some physical ailments and the mind and emotions. My homage to Freud ends there. He was only a quarter right in his research and after those points he made several to mistakes and oversights. I therefore question why he is still considered to be such a great man? And do others realise how much he got wrong? Or is Freud’s circle of influence so vast that many great thinkers have accidentally been lead astray? There are many people (including some professionals, like Peterson) who don’t seem to understand how, when, and why Freudian theories are invalid.

Freud’s theories are predominantly based on clinical records of female clients as detailed in a book titled Studies of Hysteria. Despite the fact that there was talk amongst Freud’s academic peers that hysteria could be identified in men, and that Freud himself is reported to have expressed an understanding that hysteria was not exclusively a female condition, his studies were, nevertheless, solely based on women. Putting it simply, Freud’s research is contaminated by a bias population sample. By today’s rigorous scientific standards, his case studies would be rejected and condemned for having weak inductive arguments.

Freud’s premises for the curative elements of his talking cure are highly questionable. In the process of psychoanalysis, the therapist takes on a “superior” role to the “naive” patient so as to explain to them the “reality” of their world in which they are too “sick” to see. The process is based on hypnotic principles of suggestion and submission. (The notion of therapists having “superiority” over “naive” clients is reflected in many of Peterson’s remarks.)

Freud’s adamance of the accuracy of psychoanalysis was primarily based on his personal beliefs, not empirical findings. Such can be seen in Freud’s expressed frustration at his client’s who were, to his mind, not always forthright with admitting their “passions”. Rather than accepting that his clients might be telling their truth and that his theories may be wrong, thus looking for other variables and explanations, Freud maintained the belief that sexual urges were the cause of hysteria regardless of client’s responses. Further, when his client’s reported sexual abuse and incest, he routinely dismissed their claims as being fantasy.

The notion that dreams and projective drawings hold universal insights into the subconscious mind via objective meanings has been critically evaluated in studies and found to hold little merit. (As an art therapist, I’ve gone to extreme lengths to research whether or not such theories hold merit and have come to the conclusion they do not.) While symbols, signs, and motifs may have significance, it is the individual’s interpretation of such that is deemed most important^^. Personal experiences, cultural considerations, social conditioning, religious standing, and several other factors mean that subjective interpretations of unconscious material is predominately more accurate than so-called “objective” projections given by the therapist. (These findings also reflect doubt on Carl Jung’s theories of there being a universal collective consciousness in which there are absolute meanings behind archetypes^^^.)

In my research, I was further surprised to discover that Freud had a serious cocaine habit and he regularly promoted the substance to his clients, which lead to the death of one – they overdosed by following Freud’s prescribed intake because Freud incorrectly believed that humans had a high tolerance level to the substance. In a compassionate mind-frame, I wonder if perhaps Freud’s drug habits are reflective of him self-medicating to address undiagnosed personal trauma? Be that as it may, as I shift between being highly critical of the man and trying to retain an open minded, the bottom line is that I don’t believe Freud is a very good role model. There are too many points to question the accuracy of Freud’s work for him to be entitled to the celebrity status that is bestowed upon his legacy.

“Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies”

Okay, so Freud was a man of his time, so he can be forgiven for not knowing any better. But why are the Jordan Peterson’s of the world still quoting Freudian ideas as facts when there is ample evidence to indicate otherwise? Ironically, it almost appears as though Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies.

Peterson’s approach to psychology echoes Freudian theories and is therefore prone to errors. Specifically, Peterson’s solution to PTSD being that people should simply be less naive and accept that there is malevolence in the world is unjustifiable. His suggestion of preventing PTSD by having individuals toughen up is blatantly disregarding ethical and evidence-based practice. Interestingly, at no point does Peterson recommend that people who are inclined to be malevolent should change, rather, he glorifies malevolent behaviour as being intelligent and suggest the ultimate solution is for “naive” and “child-like” people to change their perspectives. Somatic considerations of PTSD and the challenges of processing of difficult emotions are not mentioned either. I concur with Gabor Mate^ in agreeing that Peterson’s lacks a comprehensive understanding of trauma and his advocation of repressing emotions is unproductive. Sorry to say this Peterson, but I think you are a victim of Freud’s hypnotism.

Conclusion

Prior to investigating the history of PTSD, I had limited understanding of Freud and the potential negative impact that his work has had on shaping contemporary society. Like many, I knew of him as the father of psychoanalysis/psychology and, therefore, assumed the praise he is often given must be substituted. Further, as a lover of surrealistic art styles, I have appreciated his influence in enabling the development of great works like those done by Salvador Dali, James Gleeson, Jeffery Smart, and others. Now, however, my critical evaluation of his work leads me to wonder if he would be better known as the greatest hypnotist of the twentieth century?

Personally, I would like to see some other psychologists get a bit more public attention. In regards to historical characters, I’d vote for Carl Rogers (1902-1987).

“… [Rogers] believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy.”

Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy is known as humanistic or client-centred. He believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy. His promotion of building a positive relationship between consumer and therapist has been clinically proven, time and time again, to be the single most important factor underpinning all successful therapy. Further, it aligns perfectly with what is known about the nervous system and human social engagement. Rogers’ theories sit at the heart of trauma-informed practices.

Rogers’ is most renowned for promoting the importance of giving unconditional positive regard to all individuals. Now that is the type of father figure I’d like to look up to!

In reflecting back over the past hundred years of western society I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if psychology, education systems, medical models, politics, media messages, and so forth, echoed more of Rogers’ theories and less of Freud’s? Unconditional positive regard to individuals has the twofold potential of helping people with PTSD recover and preventing some cases of trauma from occurring in the first place.

* Jordan Peterson: How to Heal from PTSD/Trauma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snke9v4S2rU and PTSD, Political Beliefs, Malevolence and Dealing with Psychological Traumas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaJ5tMoilvM

** The DSM is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association that categories mental health conditions; the current version is referred to as the DSM-5. PTSD is also recognised in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) which is published by the world health organisation. The ICD distinguishes between PTSD and C-PSTD. The latter, complex-post traumatic stress disorder, is a term coined by Judith Herman in her book: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. C-PSTD is distinguishable from PTSD in that it acknowledges continued, ongoing sources of trauma opposed to single traumatic events. Presently, the DSM does not have these two categories. Nevertheless, in simple terms, both PTSD and C-PTSD may be viewed as encompassing the same or similar symptoms and requiring similar healing approaches. More information about the types of trauma can be found here. For the ease of reading, the term PTSD is used exclusively throughout this text; however, it can be inferred that comments about PTSD are equally relevant to C-PTSD.

*** Researching historical terms and definitions for mental illness is an interesting activity in itself, for example, schizophrenia used to be called dementia praecox because it was viewed as early onset of dementia.

^ Gabor Maté on Jordan Peterson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt-ppQitxU8

^^ A core consideration in art therapy practice is to never to project personal interpretations onto someone’s artwork. An individual’s interpretation of their work is the authority.

^^^ Fun fact: standard history lessons credit Jung as developing the concept of archetypes; however, the word and concept of archetypes can be traced back to Ancient Greek. Essentially, Jung took the existing word “archetype” and redefined its old meaning to his liking. This is a topic worthy of exploring in more detail in the future.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alvarado, C. S. (2002). Dissociation in Britain During the Late Nineteenth Century. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 3(2), 9–33. https://doi.org/10.1300/j229v03n02_02

Bartell, M. (2003). Internationalization of universities: A university culture-based framework. Higher Education, 45(1), 43–70. https://doi.org/10.1023/a:1021225514599

Berger, E. (2019). Multi-tiered Approaches to Trauma-Informed Care in Schools: A Systematic Review. School Mental Health. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-019-09326-0

Bergmann, M. S. (1993). Reflections on the History of Psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41(4), 929–955. https://doi.org/10.1177/000306519304100402

Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1893). On the physical nature of hysteria unilateral amblyopia and senstivosensorial hemianeasthis. Brain, 16(1–2), 181–190. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/16.1-2.181

Cambridge Dictionary. (2019). TRAUMA | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Retrieved from Cambridge.org website: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/trauma

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US. (2014). Historical Account of Trauma. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from Nih.gov website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207202/

Champine, R. B., Lang, J. M., Nelson, A. M., Hanson, R. F., & Tebes, J. K. (2019). Systems Measures of a Trauma‐Informed Approach: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Community Psychology, 64(3–4), 418–437. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12388

Editors. (2019a). Definition of HYSTERIA. Retrieved December 9, 2019, from Merriam-webster.com website: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hysteria

Evans, A., & Coccoma, P. (2017). Trauma-informed care : how neuroscience influences practice. London: Routledge.

Freud, S., & Breuer, J. (2004). Studies in hysteria. London: Penguin.

Friedman, M., Keane, T., & Resick, P. (2007). Handbook of PTSD: Science and practice. Retrieved from The Guilford Press website: https://dl.uswr.ac.ir/bitstream/Hannan/130962/1/2007%20-%20Handbook%20of%20PTSD%20-%20Friedman%2C%20Keane%2C%20Resick.pdf#page=35

Gilman, S. L., & Al, E. (1993). Hysteria beyond Freud. Berkeley: University Of California Press.

Hallock, R. M., Brand, E. C., & Mihalic, T. B. (2016). Word Origins of Common Neuroscience Terms for Use in an Undergraduate Classroom. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education : JUNE : A Publication of FUN, Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, 15(1), A76–A84. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5105969/?otool=iaumelblib

Heynen, E., Roest, J., Willemars, G., & van Hooren, S. (2017). Therapeutic alliance is a factor of change in arts therapies and psychomotor therapy with adults who have mental health problems. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 55, 111-115. doi: 10.1016/j.aip.2017.05.006

Jewkes, Y., Jordan, M., Wright, S., & Bendelow, G. (2019). Designing ‘Healthy’ Prisons for Women: Incorporating Trauma-Informed Care and Practice (TICP) into Prison Planning and Design. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(20), 3818. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16203818

Jones, E., & Wessely, S. (2006). History, EpidEmiology, trEatmEnt Psychological trauma: a historical perspective Paradigm change. Retrieved from https://www.kcl.ac.uk/kcmhr/publications/assetfiles/historical/Jones2006-psychologicaltrauma.pdf

Judith Lewis Herman. (1992). Trauma and recovery : aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York: Basicbooks.

Levenson, E. A. (1992). Mistakes, Errors, and Oversights. Contemporary Psychoanalysis28(4), 555–571. https://doi.org/10.1080/00107530.1992.10746777‌

Lerman, H. (1986). From Freud to Feminist Personality Theory: Getting Here from There. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 10(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1986.tb00733.x

Martin Evan Jay. (2018). Sigmund Freud | Austrian psychoanalyst. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sigmund-Freud

Merridale, C. (2000). The Collective Mind: Trauma and Shell-shock in Twentieth-century Russia. Journal of Contemporary History, 35(1), 39–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/002200940003500105

Micale, M. S. (1990). Charcot and the idea of hysteria in the male: Gender, mental science, and medical diagnosis in late nineteenth-century France. Medical History, 34(4), 363–411. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0025727300052777

Milojević, I. (2008). Timing feminism, feminising time. Futures, 40(4), 329–345. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2007.08.008

Muran, J. C., & Barber, J. (2010). The therapeutic alliance: An evidence-based guide to practice. New York: Guilford Press.

Online etymology dictionary. (2019). neuroscience | Origin and meaning of neuroscience by Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from Etymonline.com website: https://www.etymonline.com/word/neuroscience

Panlilio, C. C. (2019). Trauma-informed schools : integrating child maltreatment prevention, detection, and intervention. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Pearce, J. M. S. (2016). Sydenham on Hysteria. European Neurology, 76(3–4), 175–181. https://doi.org/10.1159/000450605

Perryman, K., Blisard, P., & Moss, R. (2019). Using Creative Arts in Trauma Therapy: The Neuroscience of Healing. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 41(1), 80–94. https://doi.org/10.17744/mehc.41.1.07

Rose, S. (2015). 5O years of neuroscience. The Lancet, 385(9968), 598–599. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(15)60224-0

Sigmund Freud, & G  Stanley Hall. (2018). A general introduction to psychoanalysis : a history of psychoanalytic theory, treatment and therapy. Adansonia Press.

Simmonds, J. G. (2004). Heart and spirit. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 85(4), 951–971. https://doi.org/10.1516/fw41-8025-5btj-a7tg

Spence, D. (1994). The rhetorical voice of psychoanalysis: displacement of evidence by theory. Choice Reviews Online, 32(02), 32-1232-32–1232. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.32-1232

Tasca, C. (2012). Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 8(1), 110–119. https://doi.org/10.2174/1745017901208010110

Thurschwell, P. (2009). Sigmund Freud. London ; New York: Routledge.

Twemlow, S. W., & Parens, H. (2006). Might Freud’s legacy lie beyond the couch? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 23(2), 430–451. https://doi.org/10.1037/0736-9735.23.2.430

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. London: Penguin Books.

-37.783448145.329848

Genograms

Have you ever wondered how your family’s history effects you? Have you ever noticed there are patterns of behaviour across generations? Common occupations? Reoccurring themes of tragedy? Have you ever suspected your family’s ancestry was affecting you but couldn’t quite figure out how or why? Our family of origin determines more than just our genetic material. Patterns of behaviour, ways of thinking, and belief systems also get carried down. Interestingly, science is discovering that emotional issues, such as post traumatic stress, can also be passed along family lines – this occurs partly by our DNA’s influence and by environmental factors. The result of this is that many of us carry the burden of inherited family trauma, stress and pain. Given that these issues didn’t start with us, they can be difficult to deal with.

Mark Wolynn, author of It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and and How To End the Cycle describes this as: “The worst part is that the very thing that holds us back is often invisible to us, keeping us frustrated and confused.” 

For example, a grandchild of a world war 2 veterinarian may exhibit post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as fear and panic when they hear helicopters, even if they have never experienced any chronic adversity directly to explain such a response.

Recognising that one’s family of origin plays a pivotal role influencing one’s mental health is not a new concept, however, the approach that Wolynn adds with his detailed scientific research gives provides deeper understandings and solid methods to address problems. Wolynn says: “By developing a relationship with the painful parts of ourselves—parts we have often inherited from our family—we have an opportunity to shift them.”

Nikki Mackay, author of Between the Lines: Healing the Individual & Ancestral Soul with Family Constellation, is another who has done significant work on understanding how the influence of family structures affects individuals. Mackay suggests that in events such as a child is stillborn but is never spoken of or the emotional impact of a parent’s past lover, can play hidden roles in the development of a family system. Moreover, they can cause silent torment to those who come after them but never knew them directly.

How can such mysteries be revealed? And the pain resolved? A great place to start is through the creating of a genogram.

Genograms are a formal method of mapping family systems. They slightly resemble a family tree in appearance, however, they differ in that their focus is on exploring the relationships between members and examining patterns from one generation to the next. Another difference is that genograms encourage looking at and including persons that are not blood-related, however, have a significant place or influence in the family dynamics. For example, in addition to the above examples, a close friend who has frequent contact with the family would be included due to their their enduring bond with members.

The process of drawing up a genogram involves identifying all the known people to be part of the family system for this generation and a few generations back. In some cases, little is known, in others, there is an abundance of information. Either way, the mapping out of how these relationships using a specific set of codes and symbols can bring clarity where there was once confusion. When done in an applied manner and guided by a professional with the specific training to understand the dynamics, the shifts and improvements in the life can be very profound.

When connections and patterns of behaviour in individuals are better understood, negative ones can be broken and positive ones can be reinforced. Rewarding aspects of doing this work can come in “aha” moments whereby people recognise that the shame/guilt/pain/whatever that they may be feeling does not belong to them, rather, they have been loyally carrying it for someone else. When this happens, they are able to honour this, put it back in its rightful place, and obtain a sense of peace. Recognising issues from this broader perspective has a ripple effect – when one person in a family system heals an old wound, anyone else connected benefits too.

If you are interested in mapping out your own genogram and discovering the hidden dynamics that may be influencing your current circumstances, fill out a query form here or email renaissancewellbeings@gmail.com

Example of a genogram.
Deliberately blurred to prevent identification of individuals

REFERENCES

Wolynn, M. (2017). It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle. Penguin Books.

Mackay, N. (2012). Between the Lines: Healing the Individual & Ancestral Soul with Family Constellation. Lanham: John Hunt Publishing.

Art and Trauma

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
  • Rejection
  • Ridicule
  • Invalidation

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kolk, B. van der. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin.

How to Zentangle: Art therapy style

When people first try art therapy there is often some level of self-consciousness. Thoughts and comments along the lines of  “will my drawing be ‘good’ enough?” or “I haven’t been creative since I was a kid!” or “I can’t even draw a straight line!” often come up. Such things often arise as a result of what Julia Cameron terms “art wounds”. That is situations from our past in which our attempts at being artistic were laughed at or somehow made to feel they did not measure up to what our society deems to be “good” or “real” art. Zentangling is a great way to overcome these “art wounds”. It is my firm belief – based on personal observations and research – that EVERYONE has the capacity to be creative and artistic. Giving oneself the permission to do so, without judging oneself against others, is the first step towards this.

Zentangling is basically a form of doodling that has a wonderful structure to it and the story of how it begun is also quiet special.

HOW ZENTANGLING BEGUN

Zentangling is a relatively new art form created by a couple called Maria and Rick; she was a graphic designer and he was an experienced mediator. One day when Maria was working on a detailed drawing Rick came into her studio and tried to get her attention. “Maria” he called gently at first, however, she was so absorbed with what she was doing that she did not respond. “Maria!” Rick called out a little more louder and assertively. He repeated this again and again until he had Maria’s attention. When Maria’s concentration was broken and she looked up and realised that Rick had been calling to her for several minutes it promoted some self reflection. Together, Rick and Maria established an understanding that what had happened was identifiable as Maria being in a “flow” state while she was drawing. In positive psychology, this is a state in which a person is fully living in the moment, concentrating, absorbed, yet relaxed and at peace. It also resembles the state in which many meditators try to achieve with their practice. So it was that Maria and Rick then went on to formulate a way in which they could share this practice with others.

Personally, I have always struggled with meditation and mindfulness activities; Zentangling, on the other hand, comes easily. Like Maria, I often find that when I am absorbed in the creative process I feel at peace, other worries in my life subside, and I’m able to feel a sense of perspective that I don’t ordinarily have. Through research, I have discovered that such an experience is linked to nervous system regulation. In short, by engaging in activities that encourage relaxation, like Zentangling, our minds and bodies have the opportunity to reset, so to speak. Simply deciding to be creative and make art work in order to achieve this stage when one is stress is not, however, always easy. It is for this reason I feel extremely grateful and indebted to Maria and Rick for putting together such a wonderful system like Zentangling which enables this to occur with ease.

I have used this approach as a therapeutic intervention with beginners who are nervous of their art abilities, right through experienced artists – every time it produces amazing results – both on paper and in client’s minds. I’ve seen clients who have an extensive art back grounds loosen up and gain new insights and bursts of creativity. I’ve also witnessed clients who swore they could not draw a thing be delighted in what they produced – so much so that their future attitudes and involvements with art therapy changed dramatically for the better.

While the aim of art therapy is not to make something beautiful, it is part of human nature to appreciate such, and in this regard, Zentangles have the added advantage of achieving this every time!

Maria and Rick claim the main benefits of Zentangling as being:

  • Relaxing
  • Incressing focus abilities
  • Expand your imagination
  • Learning to trust your creativity
  • Increasing awareness
  • Learning to respond confidently to the unexpected
  • Discover the fun and healing in creative expression
  • Feel gratitude and appreciation for this beautiful world and all that you can do.
  • And perhaps most importantly . . . Have fun!

Personally, I would add to this list an appreciation of the beauty of imperfection. Zentangling does not require rulers or definite rules. Rather, marks made with free hand guestures add uniqueness and beauty to the work.

So now that we know how great Zentangling is, let’s get started!

YOU WILL NEED

  • A small piece of paper – 10x10cm is fine. Or a sketchbook – I’m using my trusty A5 travel pad for this example.
  • A pencil, fineliner or pen. The traditional zentangle is done in black, however, as with most rules in art, these can be broken! Using a white pen on black paper creates some pretty groovy results!
  • Optional – reference pictures of patterns to get you started. Many can be found on Pinterest, such as these.
STEP 1: You need paper (sketch book as I have) and a pencil or pen. Traditionally, Zentangling is done in black and white, however, as with all art rules, these can be broken!

STEP 2: Make 4 marks on your page that roughly indicate a square, like above (this is rule that you can break later once you are more familiar with the process)

STEP 3a: Draw lines connecting these dots – these can be straight, curved, or whatever!
If you prefer, these step can be done with lead pencil so as there are no sharp edges when you finish

STEP 3b: Completed enclosed shape.

STEP 4a: Draw a few lines to divide the space. No limit or definite rules for this; just do it.
As above, this step can be done in lead pencil as well.

STEP 4b: Divided sections completed.

STEP 5: Fill in each section with a different pattern. This is where you may wish to use the reference pictures you found on the internet. I find that I often start with these as prompts then go off on my own creativity. It’s amazing what you can do with basic lines and shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles!

STEP 6a: Once you’ve completed one section with pattern, go on and fill in the other sections! It is that simple!

STEP 6b: It can be tempting to finish your Zentangle with line patterns, however, I’d encourage you to colour in some sections so as there is a definite contrast between light, dark, and other sections. To complete this one, I added a pole to make it look like the Zentangle is a flag – turning your Zentangle into a recognisable object is completely optional!


How did you go? I’d love to hear people’s experience and if possible it would be great if you could post a photo of your work down below so as we could build up a little Zentangle gallery. If you’re interested in doing so, fill out this form and up load a photo of your Zentangle/s. I can’t wait to see them!

If you’d like more guidance on zentangling you can book an individual session or you can sign up for a Mediation A group that incorporates some zentangling into the session.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you enjoyed zentangling. For more tips on how art can support mental health click on the follow link at the bottom of the page.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

CAMERON, J. (2002). The artist’s way: a spiritual path to higher creativity. New York, J.P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Maria, & Rick. Zentangle. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from https://zentangle.com/