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.

“The Arts Never Lie.” – The Ragamuffin Project

The Ragamuffin Project on Creative Arts Therapy:

“The arts never lie – the art we make acts as a mirror to our inner lives. As such, it goes to the source of our distress whilst enabling us to safely express chaotic and painful feelings. The process brings order, like making a home beautiful again after someone has broken in and ruined everything. As we begin to understand why we feel so low, or just repeat the same mistakes again and again, or think ourselves useless and worthless we can begin to choose something new for our lives. Each little revelation makes restoration possible. The restoration of hope, of self-belief, re-gaining balance and finding peace. Pain can be transformed into power – the power to change things for good.”

Artwork from the Ragamuffin Project, by artist Toha Hasan

The NCAS-I will have the privilege of spending time with The Ragamuffin Project in Cambodia very soon!  The Ragamuffin Project consists of a group of qualified, registered and accredited Arts Therapists working with statutory and voluntary sector organizations in the UK, Cambodia, Russia and Peru.  Please peruse their webpage here if you would like more information on their work.

(Quote and images from:

Dream Catchers: My Dream Is To…

“My dream is to open my own restaurant someday.”  “I hope to own a small hotel in the future.”  “I dream of marrying a good man, owning a home and having children.”  “Someday I would like to ride my very own motorbike.”  “I would like to own a home so my mother can live with me and not have to work collecting recycling anymore.”  “I would like to have a good job, so I can have an income for food and support my own family.”  “I dream of having a good job to save enough money to build a house where my sister and I could live together.”  “I dream of attending a university after high school to become a nurse or social worker.” – From the girls at Transitions, an organization that shelters and rehabilitates girls survivors of the sex trafficking industry

Art Activity:  Dream Catcher

~Capturing both your dreams and creativity~

A Dream Catcher by Voyle Graham

A Dream Catcher by Voyle Graham, from

That Artist Woman offers thorough step-by-step instructions on how to make a dream catcher in a blog post titled, “How to Make a Dreamcatcher” at the link below.  Check it out!

Pinterest has some beautiful and inspiring images of dream catchers, too!  Take a look here:

Remember these Dream Flags from the Matchbox Art Auction?  They offered a great way for everyone at the event to send wishes to the children and families in Cambodia at Transitions, Raggamuffin Project, and Anjali House!  NCAS-I will be delivering them soon.

(Quotes from

Art Activity: Making Worry Dolls

“The young artist told me with great confidence that she didn’t need to tell the worry doll her worries anymore, because the doll just knows them now.”
— Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater

Traditional Guatemalan Worry Doll

Handmade Worry Doll Created in Art Therapy Session

Traditional worry dolls are made in Guatemala and are thought to date back to Mayan times.  They are also sometimes referred to as trouble dolls.  Worry dolls or trouble dolls are believed to have the power to hold our worries.  For example, before bedtime, we might confide our worries in the worry doll, tuck him or her under our pillow, and get a goodnight’s rest as the doll holds all of our worries.  Even more, a worry doll can be a friend with whom we can share emotional pain.

What about worry dolls and art therapy?  The UC Davis Cancer Center suggests in art therapy sessions that children make worry dolls in the shape of their fears.  The doll is then slipped under each child’s pillow in the middle of the night, instilling in each child the belief that the source of worry is gone.  This activity of creating and using a worry doll is great because it combines so many things:  creative expression, acknowledgment of worries, friendship, trust, letting go of worries, and the therapeutic process.

As we mentioned in a previous post, the NCAS-I will be making worry dolls with the girls at Transitions and a local orphanage in Cambodia.

(Quote and 2nd image from:; other information and 1st image from:                              

Art Activities in Cambodia…Donations Welcome!

Are you curious about the art activities we have planned for our trip to Cambodia in a few weeks?  Check out our ideas below!  We will be using them with the girls at Transitions and a local orphanage:

Medicine Bags, Handmade Journals, Felted Animals, Pendant Charms with Beads, Worry Dolls, T-Shirts, Basket Weavings, Shadow Puppets and Theaters, Self Care Pouches

What do you think about this “Wee Mouse Tin House” idea from mmmcrafts for the felted animals and worry dolls?  Cozy little beds made from Altoids cans!

We want the girls at Transitions and the local orphanage to be able to continue making art after we leave, so we will be putting together art bags with various supplies for some of the activities above.  The NCAS-I welcomes any of the following donations:

9 X 12 Pad of good quality paper, Boxes of oil pastels and chalk pastels, Watercolor sets, Colored pencils, Markers, Paintbrushes (various sizes), Good cutting scissors, Fabric glue, Glue sticks, Small bottles of white school glue, Decorative items (ribbon, yarn, sequins, beads, feathers, glitter, fabric scraps), Sewing needles and thread, Wool for needle felting, Felting needles, T-Shirts (size small), Bendable wire for making armature, Pretty paper and collage images, Black construction paper, Large popsicle sticks, Mat board (for journal covers), Book binding needles, Essential oils and herbs.

Phew!  If you’re interested in making a donation, send us a message on the blog or on Facebook…and tell your friends!
***Image from

NEW BOOK! – Art Therapy in Asia: To the Bone or Wrapped in Silk

We are so excited to get our hands on this book once it publishes this month!  It couldn’t be more perfect for the work NCAS-I will be doing in Cambodia with Transitions this year and the years to come!

Take a look inside here if you’re curious about the book!  Authors have dedicated two full chapters to Cambodia and trafficking in Southeast Asia!

(Image from

A Look at Contemporary Artists in Cambodia

In hopes of offering sustainable art practices for participants and staff at Transitions, as well as for those working in the community, one of our intentions for the upcoming trip to Cambodia is to research contemporary arts and culture.  For now, we’re doing our research from home, searching the internet for inspiration…

An excerpt from a 2009 CNN article Cambodian art: Past to present describes the artistic community in Cambodia:

Cambodia, which lost an estimated one-quarter of its population or at least 1.7 million people — including an estimated 90 percent of its artists — under the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, has a small but growing artistic community: there are some 50 practicing artists out of its 14 million people, according to Phnom Penh-based curator Erin Gleeson.

Here’s a look at the artwork of a few of Cambodia’s contemporary artists:

Sopheap Pich
"Cycle 2, Version 3," 2008, Rattan and Wire, from

Leang Seckon
"Cambodian Faces," 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas, from

Chan Dany
"Kbach Phni Vois," Pencil Shavings on Wood, from

Duong Saree
"Untitled," 2005, Oil on Canvas, from

A more recent article, Cambodia’s art revolution reaches global market, includes even more artists!

Restoring the Sacred Feminine

Can the “sacred feminine” be restored when she has been sold, imprisoned, bound,
drugged, beaten to submission, starved, and raped over and over again with out
any words of love or praise? Can a girl who has been thrown away, abandoned in
the worst of all possible ways ever be able to trust the loving gaze of another? Can
her body ever receive a warm embrace and gentle touch meant to soothe instead of
harm? Can a girl taught she is nothing other than a vessel to satisfy the desires of
men ever believe that that same body can hold a growing child, birth a new life and
sustain her with the sweet milk of her very own breast? Or has her body been so
ravaged by disease, mutilations, and botched abortions that the hope of ever having
her own child is nonexistent?

Abandonment and abuse of this kind is the most horrendous and inhuman act of all,
stripping the girl from the very essence of her inherent sacred being, her birthright.
Leaving behind an empty hopeless shell, a body that can’t even feel or experience
life’s real pleasures, a heart that has closed shut to love and trust, because that is the
only way she knows how to survive.

During the making of this project many people have asked me, “what will you be
doing in Cambodia with these girls.” The standard answer to this question is easy
to express. “We will be working with both the Transition’s clinical and training
staff to share art therapy skills to aid toward the healing of trauma and also to bring
awareness to the wide spread devastation that sex trafficking is leaving in it’s wake.

We have specific interventions that we will share with the staff and the girls in
order to empower them through the language of art. We will hopefully be able
to offer useful skills that will not only allow the girls to express the unspeakable
through imagery but also give them art skills that will instill a sense of pride and
accomplishment in making something beautiful and praiseworthy with their hands.

But really, I think our mission is to look for the lost connection to the sacred
feminine that I imagine we will see in the eyes of these girls. To do what we can do,
and have been trained to do as transpersonal therapists. And that is to just sit with,
hold the pain, offer a truly compassionate gaze letting them know we see the light in
them and trust it can burn strong again, ignited by the creative feminine, even if just
for a moment. In these moments we find mutual healing and deepened compassion, remembering we have all walked powerfully unique paths towards hope and wholeness.

– Sue Wallingford, NCAS-I Faculty Leader