To understand and work with trauma, therapists have used art as a means to help facilitate survivors in their process of healing and recovery. Creating art is a therapeutic means to work with survivors. Trauma takes many forms and art can be used with children and adults, cutting across lines of gender, race, color, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, etc. Where words can not always be spoken, artwork can tell the stories.

Trauma Defined

Trauma is experienced by children and adults through isolated incidents and/or as a result of prolonged experiences. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by criteria that include being exposed to a traumatic event or events that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury. The experience is relived through recollections, dreams, flashbacks, illusions and hallucinations. A stimulus that is associated to the traumatic event or events is avoided and there is a desire to numb feelings, thoughts and emotions connected to the experience. There is increased arousal that may be exhibited through but not limited to sleep disturbances, hyper vigilance and the inability to concentrate. Based on the DSM-IV, trauma can manifest itself in many ways that often times go undetected.

Trauma and Art

It is believed that when working with trauma, art can bring structure, solidity and cohesiveness to a client’s reality. Many layers can be explored through the use of art, and using this modality can help create a safe distance between the client’s experience and their emotions. Creating art is also found to help survivors discuss their experiences with their therapists, thus creating a chance for the healing process.

Art and the Unconscious

Art is not only an avenue for the unconscious to be uncovered, but it also provides an opportunity to express faith and hope during difficult times. In this sense, art plays many roles beyond telling traumatic stories. Art therefore has the potential to be therapeutic on many levels. The distance created by the artwork between the person and the actual event facilitates the recovery process. Art provides space, distance, and the ability for the different aspects of ourselves to re-organize and heal. The therapeutic opportunities when using art are abundant on a conscious and an unconscious level.

The Artist Interprets the Artwork

It must be acknowledged that interpretation of artwork produced by children and adult trauma survivors must be restricted. The therapist’s interpretations of their clients work can be detrimental and the artist must be seen as the authority concerning their artwork. Often time’s art can reveal information that the client is not ready to bring to consciousness or to be verbalized, making it essential that the art therapist remains curious in their questioning of art created and refrains from interpretation. The therapist must follow the client in their process and movement towards health.

Art and Healing

Art has the potential to be extremely therapeutic and healing for trauma survivors. The process can give a picture to events that have no words or are too powerful or overwhelming to be uttered. A traumatic event can be externalized on canvas or in a form of a sculpture, and the colors can speak for the emotions, feelings or thoughts that accompany the memories or untold stories. Artwork may even tell a story that can only be told years after the art was initially created. On a conscious and unconscious level, art can be incredibly powerful and art therapists can create the container or support for the process necessary for trauma survivors. In that respect, art can be the therapeutic means for restoring psychological and physiological health.

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