Leela Magavi, M.D. discusses how art therapy can help with trauma.

woman sitting on floor in office doing art therapy for traumatic mental health needs

Creative expression can be a beneficial form of therapy, especially for those who need help navigating traumatic experiences.

If you’re looking to work through a distressing event, it’s OK if speaking about it gives you pause.

Talking openly about trauma can be difficult. In these situations, there’s a way to process without words.

Art therapy is a highly recommended approach for navigating this part of your journey.

You don’t have to be a seasoned artist to engage in art therapy, nor do you have to worry about things looking good or making sense. It’s all about tapping into some creative expression to dig a little deeper than you could before.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a therapeutic method that combines creative expression with talk therapy, all facilitated by a credentialed mental health professional.

The approach aims to help people address emotional issues by using a creative outlet, such as drawing, painting, dance, or music. Art therapists work with people of all ages.

The American Art Therapy Association says the benefits of art therapy include:

  • improved cognitive and sensory-motor functions
  • development of self-esteem and self-awareness
  • emotional resilience
  • enhanced social skills
  • reduction and resolution of conflicts and distress

Having a talent for the creative arts isn’t necessary for getting something out of art therapy. The goal isn’t creating aesthetically pleasing artwork. It’s about expressing yourself and your story with imagery, movement, or another creative expression.

With the guidance of an art therapist, you may unlock and express memories or feelings that help you process trauma, anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition when the words aren’t easily flowing.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a response to a situation or set of deeply distressing circumstances. Varied situations can be traumatic, such as a car accident, assault, or racial discrimination.

Effects of trauma can include:

  • altered sleep patterns
  • panic attacks
  • becoming withdrawn
  • intrusive thoughts
  • being easily startled
  • hypervigilance

Trauma and the brain

A 2007 study Trusted Source that used neuroimaging found that folks with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have neurobiological changes — the way the brain functions may change after experiencing trauma.

Some of the consistent changes were connected to emotional memory and Broca’s area of the brain, which is connected to speech. This helps explain the difficulty those who’ve navigated previous trauma can have with discussing, recounting, or processing their experiences.

Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified art therapist, and the owner of Take Root Therapy, recommends art therapy for this very reason.

“We’re really good at building a world with words. We’ve told our stories so many times, and we’re so well versed in using language that it limits us,” she says.

How the body responds to trauma

Lurie speaks to how the body holds onto trauma — even if the mind isn’t aware — also known as somatization.

“Trauma is stored in the body, and the way that we’ve experienced it is not always easy to access verbally. We experience it in images, and art can let us express that experience,” she explains.

Leela R. Magavi, MD, a regional medical director for Mindpath Health, says, “Some adults who have endured sexual abuse and traumatic situations during their childhood have repressed their memories for so long that they do not recall what occurred.

“Art therapy allows them to piece together lost memories and heal, so they can achieve their goals and trust once again in relationships,” she says.

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) says trauma can “live on” physically after an event. Some of the ways trauma can show up in the body include:

  • chronic illnesses or pain
  • sleep issues
  • frequent headaches or chest pain

Creative expression can aid in slowing some of these responses. “Painting helps quiet intrusive, ruminative thoughts and improve mindfulness, which can assuage pain and stress,” Magavi says.

Creative expression can also slow breathing and bring awareness to the sensations in your body, taking focus away from intrusive thoughts.

Benefits of using art for trauma survivors

Because everyone copes in different ways, traditional talk therapy could prove difficult to encourage someone to open up about traumatic situations.

A 2019 study suggests that art therapy is especially beneficial for survivors of prolonged or recurrent trauma. Also, a 2021 study reports that art therapy may benefit children who have experienced trauma.

Art therapy may also be beneficial for treating anxiety and depression, common symptoms of traumatic experiences, according to a review of studies.

Other methods to help trauma survivors include:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • prolonged exposure therapy

People who have had multiple traumatic experiences may have trouble with their verbal memory around the topic or don’t want to recount the experience.

This is another reason Lurie is a proponent of art therapy. It’s easy to get caught in our cycles of what we’ve been able to say occurred rather than leaning into the actual experience of what occurred.

“Some folks that have experienced trauma can find a way to protect themselves by keeping things locked away,” Lurie says.

Including art may also add a calming element for some people, which might help some folks talk about their experiences more easily once their nervous systems are relaxed.

According to Lurie, different art therapy practitioners have different ways of structuring their sessions, but she opens the floor for her clients to use their medium of choice — colored pencils, collage materials, or paint.

After the art is finished, she talks with clients about what came up in the art.

Lurie says that using an alternate method of expression can drive clients to share or even confront their experiences in a way that may feel safer.

To read the full article with sources on PsychCentral, click here. 

Leela R Magavi, M.D.

Newport Beach, CA

Dr. Leela Magavi is a native Californian and Hopkins-trained psychiatrist committed to providing compassionate, evidence-based care to individuals of all cultural, political, religious, sexual, and socioeconomic backgrounds. She completed her adult psychiatry residency at Georgetown University Hospital, during which time she also had the invaluable experience of caring for veterans at Washington, D.C. VA. As a resident, she was awarded ... Read Full Bio »

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