For those who have suffered severe physical or emotional trauma, talking directly to a therapist might not be so easy. That’s why art therapy has become increasingly popular in the treatment of difficult psychological conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event such as combat, in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened, causing feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror. It’s typical for sufferers of PTSD to repeatedly re-experience the terrifying event in the form of flashback episodes, memories or nightmares, especially when exposed to reminders of the trauma. PTSD also has physical symptoms like headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, poor immune system response, and chest pains. If left untreated, sufferers of PTSD are also more prone to drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and anxiety.
Traumatic memories are encoded in implicit as well as declarative memory systems in the brain, and are likely to exist as dissociated emotional, perceptual or sensory fragments with no coherent verbal, symbolic or temporal basis. This means that traumatic memories can be very hard to describe, process or integrate into the sufferer’s life story. Traditional methods of therapy may not be helpful in these instances.
While PTSD was not recognized as a diagnosis until 1980, the use of art expression in trauma intervention first appeared in the late 70’s. It’s a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication and expression. It’s not used as a diagnostic tool, but as a medium to address emotional issues that may be confusing, confronting, or hard to communicate with words alone.
In the clip below, published by Dignity Health, former senior airman Marcie McCammond gives insight into her experience.
“I made it and then I realized, wow, I did that and now I can explain to you how I feel. I didn’t know how to get any of that information out to somebody else before. It helped me figure out who I was.” – Marcie McCammond, former senior airman talks about the first mask she made on the NICoE program.
McCammond’s experience with art therapy is only one example of many cases in which art therapy has yielded promising results. In a study designed to identify which components of a specialized inpatient PTSD program were most effective, it was found that art therapy was the only one of 15 components that produced the greatest benefits. The other components included group therapy, community service, anger management, drama therapy and journaling. (Source: Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association).
The authors of the study concluded that it was most effective because it provided a pleasurable distraction combined with exposure to difficult content, allowing traumatic material to be processed without the negative side effects of verbal introspective interventions.
Art by J.Dittbenner for the Art of War project, curated by Iraq war veteran Curtis Bean.
Another PTSD sufferer, Phil Quin, who served 22 years in the Australian armed forces, explains that processing trauma is not the only function of art therapy, but that it can also be used as an on going management tool: to find some peace and quiet. In an article published by the ABC, Quin explains:
“I was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after Afghanistan, it’s not an easy thing to cope with. Painting takes me away from the troubles I have with PTSD, a project allows me to immerse myself in it without having intrusive thoughts.”
The effectiveness of art therapy has seen more and more service men and women picking up a paintbrush to aid in their recovery. Not only that, but it’s now being used in the treatment of other types of trauma, including sexual abuse, domestic violence, school violence, homicide, war, terrorism and medical trauma. According to the British Association of Art Therapy, it has even evolved to reflect the cultural and social diversity of those people who engage with it.
Want to learn more about art therapy? Watch creative art therapist Melissa Walker’s Ted Talk.