Student Blog Entry: Healing trauma through art-based interventions

“Healing trauma through art-based interventions”

By Emily Seagrave

One of the most exciting opportunities for me as an emerging counselor and art therapist is the practice of designing treatment plans and art-based interventions to be utilized and shared with our partner organizations in Cambodia this spring. Because the Naropa Community Art Studio-International will be partnering with organizations that work on a daily basis with individuals who have experienced trauma, our interventions require us to skillfully integrate trauma-informed practices. Eager to brainstorm ideas, I have spent some time researching Trauma-Informed Art Therapy® and potential art-based interventions. A few preliminary questions guided my research and directed me toward the intervention featured. Note: While the intervention featured may not be appropriate for all populations who have experienced trauma, my hope is that this post will offer some insight into how art can help to heal trauma.

What is trauma and what effects does trauma have on an individual? In general, traumatic events involve threats made to the integrity of an individual’s life or body, or an encounter with death or violence that is both close and personal. Herman (1997) explains that traumatic events have the power to evoke helplessness and terror and result in changes to physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory that are profound and lasting. Further, traumatic events compromise an individual’s sense of control, connection, and meaning.

How might such an experience manifest in an individual? According to Herman (1997), “The traumatized person may experience intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or may remember everything in detail but without emotion. She may find herself in a constant state of vigilance and irritability without knowing why” (p. 34). In other words, the symptoms of trauma tend to become disconnected from the source and assume a “life of their own” (Herman, 1997, p. 34).

What role does art therapy play? Words or verbal narrative cannot describe the traumatic memories because they are experienced and remembered through vivid sensations and images (Steele & Malchiodi, 2012). Art therapy, on the other hand, allows for the trauma narrative to be processed through nonverbal expression (Malchiodi, 2005, 2008, as cited in Steele & Malchiodi, 2012). Even more, Malchiodi (2011a) explains that the sensory qualities – kinesthetic, auditory, and visual – of expressive approaches like art therapy are especially beneficial when working with trauma symptoms because of their relationship to neurological functioning and neurodevelopment (as cited in Steele & Malchiodi, 2012). Ultimately, as Steele (2003) elucidates, the goal of therapy for traumatized individuals is to encode the traumatic memory, express it through language, and successfully integrate it. However, the traumatic memory must first be retrieved and indirectly symbolized through the external means of art (as cited in Steele & Malchiodi, 2012). This essential step of externalization through art can be achieved through a creative therapeutic process called “body scan,” a somatically based art intervention briefly introduced below.

Body Scan: A Somatically Based Art Intervention

How does a body scan work? Body scan is based on Peter Levine’s “Somatic Experiencing.” It essentially combines bodily experience with visual artistic expression. An individual is asked to relax and imagine scanning one’s body from feet to torso to arms to head, noticing any sensations of discomfort, anxiety, or other distressing emotions. The individual is presented with an outline of a body (or has his or her own body outlined) and is asked to use drawing materials to indicate on the body outline any sensations noted during the body scan through lines, shapes, colors, or images (Malchiodi, 2008; Steele & Raider, 2002, as cited in Malchiodi & Rozum, 2012).

What is the goal of body scan? One goal is to help the individual visually express implicit sensations and to identify where any feelings of discomfort are felt in the body. To follow-up, the individual may be asked to add additional lines, shapes, colors, or images to the outline that might help reduce the discomfort in the body. Ideally, the individual can see both where he or she is holding trauma in the body and where resources are in the body. The ultimate goal of body scan is to assist the individual in understanding how trauma affects the body and to teach that trauma reactions are actually a physical response to stressful situations (Malchiodi, 2008; Steele & Raider, 2002, as cited in Malchiodi & Rozum, 2012).

If you are interested in learning more, watch the video above by Art2BeArt for Positive Living and Social Change – a group of Kenyan and International visual artists and therapists that uses what has been termed “body mapping,” a creative therapeutic process similar to “body scan,” in their work with marginalized groups. Through “body scan” or “body mapping,” you can see how individuals are able to externalize somatic and emotional experience, make meaning with symbolic representation through creative expression, and develop a tangible image that reconnects the different aspects of their being, all of which are key goals of trauma-informed art therapy and goals I hope our partners can work toward with help from the art-based interventions we share.

Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Malchiodi, C & Rozum, A. L. (2012). Cognitive behavioral and mind-body approaches. In Malchiodi, C. (Ed.), Handbook of art therapy (89-102). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Steele, W. & Malchiodi, C. (2012). Trauma-informed practices with children and adolescents. New York, NY: Routledge.

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