Art Therapy and PTSD

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The Clinic I am in at the moment, St. John of John Burwood, they have an Art Therapy program that you do as part of your group recovery. Not only do you have group therapy classes, the art room is open at times throughout the day with a train Art Therapist on hand.

I found it immensely beneficial attending the Art Therapy classes and going to the Art Therapy groups. I made a collage of representing my PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) using magazine words and pictures. I was able to express myself in this way more fluidly than just talking. I gained a deeper insight into DID and grew to understand my alters better finding pictures that reflected what they meant to me. I was then able to show this to my psychologist and thereby give him a greater understanding of how my mind was working.

In the additional hours that the Art room was open, I made a Quilt. I love quilting and it was so absorbing and comforting to be able to pursue my much-treasured hobby. They even had a sewing machine so there were no barriers to anything I wanted to do. People were working on paintings, sculptures, pastels pictures, handcrafts, glass works etc. It filled the time between therapy productively and meaningfully, helping the day at the Clinic to pass quickly.

Art therapy uses creative mediums like drawing, painting, coloring, and sculpture. For PTSD recovery, art helps process traumatic events in a new away. Art provides an outlet when words fail. With a trained art therapist, every step of the therapy process involves art.

Curtis is also a board-certified art therapist. She uses art-making throughout the PTSD recovery process. For example, to “help clients identify coping strategies and internal strengths to begin the journey of healing,” they may create collages of images representing internal strengths, she explains.

Clients examine feelings and thoughts about trauma by making a mask or drawing a feeling and discussing it. Art builds grounding and coping skills by photographing pleasant objects. It can help tell the story of trauma by creating a graphic timeline.

Through methods like these, integrating art into therapy addresses a person’s whole experience. This is critical with PTSD. Trauma is not experienced just through words.

How art therapy can help with PTSD

While talk therapy has long been used for PTSD treatment, sometimes words can fail to do the job. Art therapy, on the other hand, works because it provides an alternative, equally effective outlet for expression, say experts.

“Art expression is a powerful way to safely contain and create separation from the terrifying experience of trauma,” writes board-certified art therapist Gretchen Miller for the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children. “Art safely gives voice to and makes a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts, and memories visible when words are insufficient.”

Adds Curtis: “When you bring art or creativity into a session, on a very, very basic level, it taps into other parts of a person’s experience. It accesses information … or emotions that maybe can’t be accessed through talking alone.”

PTSD, the body, and art therapy

PTSD recovery also involves reclaiming the safety of your body. Many who live with PTSD find themselves disconnected or dissociated from their bodies. This is often the result of having felt threatened and physically unsafe during traumatic events. Learning to have a relationship with the body, however, is critical for recovering from PTSD.

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies,” writes Bessel van der Kolk, MD, in “The Body Keeps the Score.” “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

Art therapy excels for body work because clients manipulate artwork outside themselves. By externalizing difficult pieces of their trauma stories, clients begin to safely access their physical experiences and relearn that their bodies are a safe place.

“Art therapists in particular are trained to use media in all kinds of different ways and that might even be helping getting somebody more in their body,” Curtis says. “Just like art can bridge feelings and words, it can also be a bridge back into feeling grounded and safe in one’s body.”

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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