How art therapy has helped those with PTSD
Picasso once said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” and many people around the world use art as a means to deal with stress, trauma and unhappiness – or to just find greater peace and meaning in their lives.
Art therapy is still undergoing research as a treatment option for PTSD and it’s hard-to-treat symptoms (such as avoidance and emotional numbing,) but it is increasingly showing significant and sustained benefit as a complementary and integrative therapy option for people with PTSD.
‘Over thirty years of scientific investigation have demonstrated that creative expression can alter not just moods, attitudes and emotions, but influences neuro-endocrine pathways that control physiologic outcomes as varied as blood pressure, sleep and the immune response. We are learning how creative expression can:
- Reduce blood pressure while boosting the immune system and reducing stress
- Promote relaxation and a sense of well-being
- Reduce anxiety, depression and pain
- Promote general quality of life
By putting individuals in touch with their feelings and providing a means to express this to others, creative self-expression helps to engage one in all aspects of treatment, empowering a person with a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and possibility. While the quantification and full description of how creative expression heals PTSD and other trauma-related conditions is still in its early stages, the healing opportunity is real and significant.’
Art therapy sessions can provide a safe environment for authentic expression, an opportunity to ‘verbalise’ inner emotions without having to talk, can help contain overwhelming emotions, and help reconcile feelings of guilt.
Trauma affects both the verbal and non-verbal aspects of memory, and talking at the same time as producing art, can allow the brain to open up in a different way to normal, enabling complex feelings to be expressed. Art therapy takes place with a trained professional who can help to guide you through the process to unlock its healing benefits.
The connection with neural pathways
Thanks to advances in medical technology (in particular, brain imaging) we can now validate claims of the benefits of art therapy, seeing exactly how it all works. Producing art can change neural pathways in the brain, which can help to change how we think and feel. Art therapy has been shown to bring together a mind-body connectedness, bi-lateral stimulation, conscious and unconscious mental activity, communication between the limbic system and cerebral cortex functioning, and allow the brain to use mental and visual imagery.
How can art therapy help those with PTSD?
Reliving trauma can be especially difficult, particularly if you have flashbacks and nightmares as part of your PTSD symptoms. Art therapy can help individuals find coping strategies and an internal strength to begin their healing process without having to relive experiences. Individuals can draw on memories through art by using a sculpture or drawing to convey how they are feeling instead of speaking out loud. This can be especially good for those who struggle to talk about how they feel, or who aren’t quite sure how to express what they are going through.
Art therapy can also help people feeling hypervigilant or panicked, and can provide an outlet to convey what this feels like and where it stems from. In some cases, even they aren’t entirely sure what is at the root of it all, and through art therapy, this can be explored to present answers as well as healing. It is a powerful way to safely explore trauma and the experiences surrounding it. It provides visibility to suffering, which can also be used to chart a timeline for the PTSD sufferer to see how their feelings are changing and evolving.
Can I do art therapy at home?
Yes – although true ‘art therapy’ should be undertaken with a trained art therapist – but there is nothing to stop you making art at home.
You might find it useful to have a focus, or task with your art, such as any of the following suggested by FellowShip Hall:
- Draw a place where you feel safe. In this project you’ll create a place, draw, painted or sculpted, that makes you feel safe.
- Make art that is ephemeral. Sometimes we have a hard time letting go, but this project will teach you that it’s ok if something doesn’t last. Use materials like sand, chalk, paper or water to create art that you will destroy when it’s done.
- Make a drawing related to a quote you like. Take the words of wisdom from someone else and turn them into something visually inspiring.
- Make a zentangle. These fun little drawings are a great tool for letting go and helping reduce stress.
- Create a calming collage. Choose images that you find soothing, calming or even meditative and combine them to create an attractive collage that can help you to relax.
- Draw yourself as an animal. Is there an animal that you have a special interest in or feel like is a kindred spirit?
- Draw yourself as a tree. Your roots will be loaded with descriptions of things that give you strength and your good qualities, while your leaves can be the things that you’re trying to change.
- Sculpt your hand in plaster. Once it’s dry, write all the good things you can do with it right onto the hand.
Most of all, when you’re creating your art, let yourself be free. Don’t allow yourself to judge your work. After all, there’s no way to fail and no right way to make art. Just draw, paint or sculpt whatever, and however it makes you happy.
As it is one of many solutions used to treat PTSD, art therapy can often be used in conjunction with a range of treatment options to find something that works. Every individual is different, and therefore knowing we all react differently to therapy can help us find the right combination for us.
There are many art therapy programmes available in the UK, but to find a local practitioner to you, you can visit the British Association for Art Therapists website here: https://www.baat.org/About-BAAT/Find-an-Art-Therapist
It’s important to note too, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
Melissa S. Walker, Girija Kaimal, Robert Koffman, Thomas J. DeGraba, Art therapy for PTSD and TBI: A senior active duty military service member’s therapeutic journey, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 49, 2016, Pages 10-18, ISSN 0197-4556, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2016.05.015.
David Spiegel MD, Cathy Malchiodi MA, ATR-BC, Amy Backos MA, ATR-BC & Kate Collie PhD, MFA, ATR (2006) Art Therapy for Combat-Related PTSD: Recommendations for Research and Practice, Art Therapy, 23:4, 157-164, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2006.10129335
Francie Lyshak-Stelzer ATR-BC, LCAT, CASAC, CGP, Pamela Singer MA, ATR-BC, LCAT, St. John Patricia EdD, ATR-BC, LCAT & Claude M. Chemtob PhD (2007) Art Therapy for Adolescents with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: A Pilot Study, Art Therapy, 24:4, 163-169, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2007.10129474
Savneet Talwar, Accessing traumatic memory through art making: An art therapy trauma protocol (ATTP), The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2007, Pages 22-35, ISSN 0197-4556, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2006.09.001.
Schouten KA MATh, van Hooren S PhD, Knipscheer JW PhD, Kleber RJ PhD, Hutschemaekers GJM PhD. Trauma-Focused Art Therapy in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Pilot Study. J Trauma Dissociation. 2019 Jan-Feb;20(1):114-130. doi: 10.1080/15299732.2018.1502712. Epub 2018 Aug 15. PMID: 30111254.
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It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
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