How art therapy has helped those with PTSD

How art therapy has helped those with PTSD

The experience of going to counselling is often described as walking into a room with a bag of jumbled up colouring pencils. Each pencil you take out is a point of conversation with a trained practitioner. After dealing with it, you can then put it back into a box, but this time, it will be in the order it should be in. This analogy shows how jumbled our mind can be when we are suffering from a mental disorder, but that by taking each of the pieces out, we can work through it all and reorder it.

Colouring pencils don’t just have to be metaphorical though. Art therapy has been found to help those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. By talking at the same time as producing art, it allows the brain to open up in a different way to normal, enabling complex feelings to be expressed.

It goes beyond just colouring in between marked out lines in Zen mindfulness books though. Art therapy instead takes place with a trained professional who can help to guide you through the process to unlock its healing benefits. It’s about finding ways of working through your repressed or harmful memories so that they no longer cause you pain or suffering.

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 works by using mediums such as painting, drawing, sculpture and colouring with a trained art therapist. It can help individuals find coping strategies and an internal strength to begin their healing process. 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. Trauma can be felt in so many ways, as art therapy explores.

Art therapy provides another means of expression for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may be feeling hypervigilant or panicked, depressed or anxious, amongst other symptoms, and need 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.

The connection with neural pathways

Thanks to advances in medical technology – and in particular, brain imaging – research has now also been able to validate anecdotal claims of the benefits of art therapy, seeing exactly how it all works. Producing art can work to 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.

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 tailor what we is used to our specific needs.

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.

REFERENCES: Healthline, Psych Central, The Palmeira Practice, ABC,

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