Psychological or mental trauma refers to damage to the mind that often originates from severe and distressing events. These events may be one time experiences or recurring events. Unable to cope with the overwhelming experiences, we fail to cope and integrate emotions evoked from the traumatic experience which may lead to further complications in a person’s mental health and wellbeing.
Trauma is not just an event that happened at time and place in the past; it is an ongoing process, with that event impacting the human body and mind, how one thinks, what one thinks about, as well as the capacity to think. Serious long-term mental health problems can be caused from trauma and lead down different paths such as self-harming, substance abuse, eating disorder, depression, anxiety, isolation, stigma and more. For children, it affects their emotional well-being and can result in feelings of shame, denial, fear, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, low self-esteem and more. Trauma does not only affect those who experience it, but also those around them.
This article aims to briefly highlight the effectiveness of art therapy on people who witness or suffer from trauma. Art therapy is an alternative therapeutic approach that combines psychotherapy and the creative process and can be utilized to minimise the long-term effects of trauma, transforming them into mere memories. Individuals of all ages and backgrounds can potentially benefit from this, with the objective of art therapy and its focus being on the process of the product rather than on the final piece.
The therapist provides a safe space for the individual to allow for these traumatic memories to be active and contained. The individual is encouraged to use the art materials to share and explore their difficult feelings. The physical process reawakens the memories and, with the aid of the therapist, restores them in a healthier positive sense.
The creative process allows the individual to find their voice either through verbal expression or through their art work and helps them identify and erase the unbearable experience. In some cases, the art work can help the individual to hold or contain feelings that the experience had made intolerable.
Art therapy can work effectively in both group work and in individual sessions. In group work, the therapist creates a holding environment for the individuals to share these traumatic experiences and allows for thoughts to be listened to, acknowledged and no longer kept a secret. For some, the art work can serve as a talisman, something truly meaningful and inspiring for the individual to hold onto, whilst for others, the process of art gives them the feeling of catharsis; as something that is being cut off of them, allowing them to move forward.
Through the use of group work, the members of the group develop an interpersonal growth, awareness, reconnection with each other and create relationships that are trustworthy and containing. Art work is the primary vehicle to express this painful experience in a safe and containing space. When words are difficult to come by, expressing through images can become a visual language itself.
In one to one art therapy sessions the therapist provides the same structure as in group work with the difference being that the session is private and more personal. The therapist provides a supportive environment for the individual to explore, share and express their feelings through the art materials. Through this mutual exploration of the person’s artwork and what it means to them, they can develop a better understanding of themselves.
Art therapy is an alternative approach that allows the individual to explore their inner psyche through a deeper and more creative journey. Art materials provide a safe and containing feeling for the individual, allowing one to expose and reflect on these difficult feelings, together with the support of the therapist. The art form enables the individual to see and mirror, in a concrete manner, the evidence of their personal journey and their improvement.