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.

No Sunday Plans? Watch “Half the Sky” Online!

Watch Part 1 through October 8 here:

Watch Part 2 through October 9 here:

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide was filmed in 10 countries and follows Kristof, WuDunn, and celebrity activists America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, and Olivia Wilde on a journey to tell the stories of inspiring, courageous individuals. Across the globe oppression is being confronted, and real meaningful solutions are being fashioned through health care, education, and economic empowerment for women and girls. The linked problems of sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality — which needlessly claim one woman every 90 seconds — present to us the single most vital opportunity of our time: the opportunity to make a change. All over the world women are seizing this opportunity.” -From

“When women progress, we all progress.” – From “Half the Sky”

Do you want to support NCAS-I and our upcoming Painting Marathon fundraiser?  Visit our Crowdrise page and donate to the cause HERE!

#111, and What We Don’t Know

Phnom Penh at night

by Meg Hamilton

As part of trying to understand how trafficking happens here and what circumstances are like for women we visited a number of bars in which girls work. This work takes many different forms, and we learned a lot. To clarify this piece is not about the girls at Transitions. It has taken some time to let these experiences settle, and it feels like the learning inherent in the experiences is central to our work here. Thank you for listening:

To begin this story I’ll begin at the end.

It’s almost 7 at night. I sit in a chair in the small balcony attached to our hotel room. Tuk tuks buzz by on the street below. A horn honks. Dog barks. The smell of rotting trash wafts up from the street three floors below. The smell of food cooking in street carts.

The city is alive and buzzing tonight. There is an election this weekend. In the distance there is the echoing sound of speakers and a distant rise of cheers.

This morning when I sat I only wanted to hug my knees to my chest and sob. Yet I could not pinpoint what it was that was breaking my heart.

Last night. The last bar we were in. Walking through the front door and past a group of men sitting on their motos. “Hey lady.” They each chimed. Into the bar and suddenly affronted by a subtle set of images. On the tv screen in the corner a tiger mauled an antelope. To my left a group of women stood behind the bar. In front of me was a large mural- women in silhouette in bras and panties. In front of me and scattered throughout the bar photographs of the bar owner and his three young daughters. They reached their hands up to his chest appearing shy and seeking protection.

This set of images- as bizarre as they were- slammed into my gut and mind. The disjointed links between them setting off a series of alarms that were already set to spring.

On the tv screen the predators continued their violent pursuit of prey.

We sit at this bar for a while and play Connect Four and a dice game I’ve never played before with a few of the girls working there. They are friendly and playful. They kick my ass at the dice game and I buy them shots for winning.

The bar before this one. Heather, a teacher from Transitions who is showing us around, opens the door and we are instantly greeted by cheers and loud Hello’s!! The bar is dark- it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust and take everything in. It’s small- a narrow space lit with a few lights. A long wooden bar covers the left side of the building and tables, booths, and chairs fill the remaining corners. There are probably 30 young Cambdian girls in this bar- each dressed in a tight sexy blue dress and wearing thick make up. It takes me a minute to take all of this in and to click these pieces into place.

We sit down at a bench in the back and instantly five girls are sitting with us, asking us questions and flirting. I am still uncomfortable. It takes me a minute to be able to answer.

When Heather says it’s appropriate, I begin to ask questions too. One woman says she has worked at the bar for two months. Before this she worked in a shoe factory for 10 years. She made almost no money, and told us the conditions at the bar are better than those of the factory.

Another has been at the bar for 6 months. She speaks little English, and uses her body to communicate. Puts her arm around Katie M., uses her other arm to push away another girl attempting to join the circle. Her long dark hair is curled in beautiful careful ringlets. She strokes Katie M.’s arm and tells her that her light skin is beautiful- more beautiful than hers.

Go back a few more days. The karaoke bar near our hotel in Siem Reap. We don’t know what this is or how karaoke bars work but we know we’ve seen girls sitting out front and we are curious. Investigative. We walk in and our overwhelmed by the bright colors and loud blaring music of the place. The people there seem panicked. Eager to get us out of the hallways. They seem stunned to see a group of white women here. A skinny man in a maroon suit anxiously leads us through the hallways until I, confused and not wanting to follow this man deeper into this building, stop and ask about karaoke. He turns the other way and opens a door to a large room with a projector. Blue and yellow striped plastic booths line the walls. It’s your own personal karaoke room. We tell the man we will be back later. On our way out we pass two women sitting in the entryway. They’re dressed in playful girly outfits. Wearing thick make up. They have buttons with numbers pinned to their chest. #111 looks up at us as we exit quickly.

We have no idea what it is we’ve just seen. Each of these bars contains its own unique culture, and it has been immensely difficult to sort out our understandings of trafficking, and to differentiate it from sex work by choice. Hostessing is different from being a bar girl. A karaoke girl is different from a prostitute. In 2008 the Cambodian government passed a law clearly defining trafficking and outlawing it. Since then trafficking has moved further underground; prior to this law it would not be unusual to have young children- 8 years old, 10 years old- approach you and solicit you. It would not have been unusual to see women soliciting customers on the streets. Now when you enter a bar in which girls are working it is impossible to tell who is here by choice and who is not.

Many of the women who work as bar girls value their work, and have found it to be empowering. Many come from the countryside to work in the city. They send money home to their families and care for sick relatives. They raise their social status through the accumulation of wealth. Should they remain at their homes in the country they would likely spend their lives as rice farmers, live in poverty, marry a man they don’t want to spend their lives with. Or continue work in a factory that treats them worse than the men in the bars.

My heartache, I think, comes from the weight of the overwhelm of the entire system. Empowerment is found in a more lucrative vocation, in the power so easy to feel in sexual mastery. Yet these vocations are inherently still dependent upon a man and have what seems to be primarily a materialistic gain. What about real options- real freedom- what would these women do if they felt they could do anything at all?

The burden deepens for me when I think about my role in these systems. The woman who worked in the factory, for instance. Whose shoes did she make? Did I ever buy a pair?

It feels like an impossible situation.

The Healing Power of Photography

Check out this blog we found from Polaris Project! Polaris Project will be partnering with art therapy programs in New York and New Jersey to teach women who have been trafficked photography as a means of expressing themselves. Amazing.  (From Polaris Project’s North Star blog)

The Healing Power of Photography

by K.Keisel NJ Program Coordinator

“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything,” said Aaron Siskind, a revered American photographer of the 30s and 40s. What each photographer chooses to catch on film is a creative outlet for that individual; an inspiration that withstands the test of time. And for victims of trauma; this art form can be therapeutic.

Polaris Project New Jersey has developed a photography program for the victims of human trafficking we serve. The one-year program starts with beginner-level classes and advances through five stages. Four to six clients will be in each class.

The goal of this photography program is to help our clients not only tell their stories, but the stories of others. This medium gives them the opportunity to share the voice they want to share, and invest in concrete skills they can use in building their future.

We are excited to have already received donations of multiple disposable cameras to help us implement our program. The first beginner class was earlier this month. The survivors who have enrolled are incredibly enthusiastic about their work and the future possibilities. As they learn how to effectively operate a camera, understand the complexity of photography, and continue to develop their craft, we hope other venues and individuals may be willing to donate more cameras to the cause.

Starting this fall, we will be partnering with New Jersey and New York art therapy programs and local artists to create a sustainable artistic program in the New Jersey office. We greatly appreciate this initiative. As this partnership continues, we hope to make advanced classes available for clients who have completed our program so that they can continue their education with resources The New School can provide. By that point, participating clients will have a concrete and marketable set of skills that they can use to sell their photography and also gain scholarships into local universities. It is also our hope that the survivors that graduate from the program will feel empowered to teach beginner courses of photography to other survivors.

This program has been designed using the survivors’ input. It is not only a therapy program, but also promotes social change and economic stability.

If you would like to help these survivors build a foundation from which they can propel themselves into stable, independent lifestyles, please visit our Amazon wish list and purchase a camera that survivors can use throughout their yearlong course.

Photo credit: RiverOfGod