Do you find traditional talk therapy to be boring, uncomfortable, or simply not “for you”?
If so, you may be better suited for a more creative intervention. Expressive arts therapy uses a multimodal approach that allows individuals to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings through the use of various art processes.
Over the past couple of decades, expressive therapies such as art therapy, music therapy and sandtray therapy have experienced tremendous growth, not only in advancing treatment options but also in the different populations we’re now able to serve. People of all ages can benefit from these techniques, including children, teens, and adults, as it helps people more easily communicate ideas and emotions that may otherwise be too difficult to articulate.
Before we dive into the different types of expressive therapies that can be used in the treatment of trauma, it may be helpful to first understand the neurobiological effects of trauma on the brain.
The Neurobiology of Trauma
The considerable advancement of expressive therapies over the past 20 years can be largely attributed to the exponential growth of the field of neuroscience. Through imagination and creativity, we can now better understand the effects of trauma on the brain and nervous system (Farokhi, 2011)
Traumatic memories are often stored in the brain as pictures and sensations rather than in words. Creating art – whether it is painting, music, dance etc. – helps individuals release those memories that may have been previously inaccessible.
Brain imaging has revealed that the part of our brain in control of speech shuts down when recounting a traumatic event. This makes it very difficult to treat individuals suffering from trauma with traditional talk therapy methods. Expressive art therapies, on the other hand, have been shown to activate the right (creative) side of the brain, allowing for less reliance on verbal communication.
Often survivors of trauma are left without a means to place memories in historical context through language. Combined with neurobiological, somatic, and cognitive-behavioral approaches, expressive art therapy can further assist individuals in bridging sensory memories and expanding on that narrative; promoting a more comprehensive healing process.
Expressive Arts Therapy
Sure, traditional talk therapy can be very beneficial for some but it’s certainly not the ideal trauma treatment for all and the use of expressive arts therapies provides us with even more ways to promote therapeutic healing. They’re particularly effective because they provide a sensory means for individuals to express the deep-seeded thoughts and feelings surrounding their traumatic memories.
To help you decide if this type of treatment is right for you, let’s dive a little deeper into the most common types of expressive arts therapies:
Art therapy is a technique rooted in the theory that creative expression allows individuals to explore their inner emotional world which, in turn, can foster deeper healing and mental well-being. A 2014 review of case studies exploring art therapy discovered evidence suggesting that art, either by creating it or simply viewing it, can help people explore their emotions, develop self-awareness, boost self-esteem, and cope with stress, depression, and anxiety (Chancellor 2014).
Art therapy is commonly used to treat a wide range of mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use, trauma, psychosocial issues, and more. This type of therapy not only sparks creativity, but it also then provides you with the unique opportunity to analyze what you have created and form connections based on how it makes you feel. By exploring different forms of art, people can identify themes and potential conflicts that may be affecting their inner thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (Stuckey).
Music has the unique ability to evoke emotion and influence our mood which is why we all have a favorite song. Music therapy consists of creating, singing, dancing to, and/or listening to music or other sounds. Much like art therapy, this method also offers individuals a way to safely uncover and express emotions they may not be able or ready to discuss.
For centuries, music has been used as a healing tool for a wide variety of physical and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, development of speech and auditory skills, high blood pressure, and much more. It is also particularly effective in the treatment of trauma because music activates the limbic area of the brain which is where our memories are stored – both positive and traumatic. Music therapy serves as a far less invasive approach to traditional trauma treatment by gently uncovering these memories so they can then be discussed between the individual and their therapist.
Sandtray therapy, also sometimes referred to as sandplay therapy, combines the use of play therapy and art therapy by encouraging individuals, couples, or families to spend the next 30-60 minutes creating a “play world” inside of a sandbox using a collection of miniature figures provided by the therapist. The therapist rarely interrupts during this time, rather simply observes the creative process.
Afterwards, the therapist generally explains their observations, including which figures were used, how they were arranged, how many times they were rearranged, and so on, as well as what they perceive to be the meaning behind these choices. This can be very helpful in the treatment of trauma because it can reveal internal struggles and conflicts that the individual may not have otherwise been able to express verbally. This type of therapy may also be a good choice for teens and/or adults who may be feeling “stuck” in traditional talk therapy.
No matter which intervention you look at, all of these creative therapies provide individuals with integrative care and coping mechanisms to help them process past and present emotions to heal from trauma and other mental health issues.
After experiencing the benefits of creative interventions such as these, many people have found that they prefer these sessions over other more traditional forms of therapy. Common reasons for this include; these methods are non-threatening, they put less direct focus on the individual, they’re a safe outlet for expressing what is felt inside, they offer individuals an increased sense of control, they make for a more interesting and creative session, they help individuals discover underlying thoughts and feelings, and many found it easier to develop a strong relationship with the therapist during these sessions.
If you or someone you love has experienced trauma and would like to explore creative therapy treatment options, please be in touch. I would be happy to discuss how I may be able to help.
- Chancellor B, Duncan A, Chatterjee A (2014) Art therapy for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. J Alzheimers Dis 39:1–11
- Farokhi, Masoumeh. “Art Therapy In Humanistic Psychiatry.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier, 27 Dec. 2011, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811022312
- Stuckey HL, Nobel J. The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(2):254-63. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497