Art and how it is used by survivors

Art and how it is used by survivors

Art and how it is used by survivors

The word ‘trauma’ comes from a Greek word, which means ‘wound’. Even though in Greek terminology it quite literally means a wound, the word ‘trauma’ is now used in a psychological way now. It can be described as ‘a deeply distressing or disturbing experience’. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) can be described as a psychiatric disorder which is the aftermath of a traumatic event when it is triggered.

The process of addressing traumas and accepting their harsh reality is one of the most difficult things to do. It takes a lot of courage for one to come to terms with whatever they experienced and once one has accepted the reality of their trauma, the next thing to do is to seek help. Usually, people shy away from therapy, mainly because just talking about their traumatic past can be enough to trigger them greatly. Fortunately, there are different types of therapies through which one can recover from PTSD. One of these methods is art therapy.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, art therapy can be described as a therapy based on engagement in artistic activities as a means of creative expression and symbolic communication especially in individuals affected with a mental or emotional disorder or cognitive impairment. These activities include drawing, drama, psychodrama, music, puppetry, sand, and storytelling, etc. Through these activities, one can communicate their feelings without really using words to talk about them.

Whenever a traumatic event takes place, the part of the brain that is in charge of verbal expression shuts down. Hence the trauma is then stored in the non-verbal area of our brain. According to Perry and Pollard, all experiences that humans face, change them somehow. They change a person’s way of thinking or have some minor impact on the person. However,  something which is emotionally threatening can completely disturb the peace of the brain and its system as a response to the threat. Emotional material from the painful past is stored in the right side of the brain and is called ‘implicit knowledge’ and is more difficult to talk about (as discussed by Schore). Fortunately, through art therapy, these thoughts can be accessed safely through art therapy.

The practice of expressing oneself in artwork helps one to tell their story without talking about it. Unconsciously, one draws what they are feeling and their feelings and story is identified in the artwork they produce. However, an art therapist should be careful not to project their own understanding of the artwork produced by their patient onto the patient themselves. It is the art therapist’s job to let the patient tell their own story through their work, so to provide them with some clearness in their own understanding of themselves.

Bessel van der Kolk talks about trauma in the following words “the body keeps the score”. According to van der Kolk, even though one may seem like they have forgotten their past traumas and are living a supposedly happy life, the body does not forget. So much so that even though the patient might not be able to remember the traumatic event verbally, their body still remembers. This is where the significance of art therapy comes in. Patients who have never verbally confronted themselves about their traumatic past are unable to talk to others about it, because they do not know how to put it into words. This is where art therapy comes in, and through drawing, painting or whatever medium they are able to put their thoughts in front of them in the form of art.

This is how art therapy becomes a medium for therapists to get through to patients who have yet not even confronted themselves about their past traumas. Art can help one learn about the person’s experiences in life. It can go further into the depths of their brain without them saying too much.


The reason people find art therapy so effective is because art in itself is a relaxation for most. When one is painting or drawing, they feel calm and at peace. They achieve peace of mind through which they find it easy to communicate. Margaret Naumberg (who has been named as the grandmother of art therapy) has described creating art as a way of meditation. According to Naumberg, creating art gives one the same flow of their brain wave, which is the same relaxed state, achieved in meditation.

Art also gives one great pleasure. Just the act of making something and accomplishing something is enough to boost a person’s emotions. Art is something that is introduced to most people at an early stage in life, so it feels like a unified language through which most people can come together and communicate.

Studies reveal that people who attend both psychotherapy and art therapy have a higher recovery rate than those who only attend therapy. The right art therapist can work at one’s pace and help them heal and achieve their peace of mind through art so they can communicate their traumas in a way they can feel relaxed and at peace in.


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