Healing Beyond Words – Why the arts aren’t just for kids
Sadly, most of us grow up believing that art is only for kids or for people who call themselves “Artist” with a capital “A” and whose work hangs in galleries and museums. However, the more we learn about the brain, the more evidence crops up that tells us the arts support healing and recovery from trauma – and not just for children.
When a person experiences something traumatic, the lower parts of the brain take control – those parts that we share with animals and that control our survival instincts. Even long after the danger has ceased and the person is in a safe environment, the traumatized brain remains on high alert, looking out for sings of danger and doing its best to protect us from more trauma. These lower parts of our brain aren’t verbal, information is stored as image and physical sensation. This means that our higher brain functions, our ability to focus on school or work tasks even long after the trauma, can be impaired.
Using basic artistic practices can assist the trauma survivor in regulating the brain and the body, calming the stress response and allowing the higher brains functions to come back online. This allows the traumatized brain to begin healing from the ground up and to put words to the experience in a way that helps the body, mind and heart move the trauma solidly into the past rather than continuing to feel like it is still happening in the present.
Why is this important? There are a few reasons. One is that trauma memories are not stored nicely and neatly with images and feelings and words all connected – rather they are disjointed, out of time, and held deeply in the body. This can make talking about trauma very difficult, which can make healing through talk therapy less accessible. Another reason is specific to people who experience trauma early in life. Language skills and the ability to put experience into words are not fully developed early in life, meaning there may have been no words put to the experience at the time. The adult survivor of childhood trauma may need a way to bring their current vocabulary together with the experience stored in the body in order to fully process and heal from their experience.
How does this work? Artistic practices are body experiences, and what we do in the body directly affects what happens in the brain. The feeling of carefully applying paint to paper requires that you slow the breath in order to steady the brush, and this serves to calm the body which then helps calm the mind. Making deliberate movements to bring an image out in clay requires that your mind focus not only on what you want to express, but also on the physical act of working the clay. This means the mind is keeping one foot in the present moment rather than being caught up in the past, even when working with aspects of a traumatic memory. This ‘one foot in the present and one foot in the past’ experience supports a person’s ability to regulate their emotions even when dealing with difficult material and fosters the belief that it is possible to face the traumatic memories.
These body experiences tap into the lower brain regions that are nonverbal, allowing the body to show what has few or no words – yet. Through arts practices, those nonverbal experiences are expressed and come to exist outside of the body and the mind. The arts practice and the product created act as the bridge allowing the trauma survivor to finally find the words they need to help them make sense of their experience, to put the pieces together, and to begin to build their own path beyond the trauma.
Here at the center, clinicians have experience working with clients of all skill levels on an individual basis to determine when using arts practices will help move the healing process forward. NO NEED TO KNOW HOW TO PAINT OR DRAW! All that is needed is your presence, and with the support of the clinicians at the center, you will find your own unique path toward expressing your experience and healing from trauma.
Chandra Reber, M.A., L.P.C.A.
www.cathymalchiodi.com – Provides more information regarding the benefits of using art in healing from trauma.
Art is a way of knowing written by Pat Allen
Inspiration sandwich and other books by Sark
Pinterest is a great resource for finding art journal prompts for all skill levels*