When we experience a traumatic event the part of our brain that is responsible for language (the Brocas area) shuts down. At the same time, our brain’s danger recognition centre is on high alert and records the traumatic memory visually and in the form of bodily sensation (Rausch et al, 1996).
Using art to express emotion accesses both visually stored memory and body memory, as not only does it enable people to create images, but the use of art materials such as clay and paint can reconnect them to physical sensation. They may be cut off from their bodily senses, particularly in cases of physical and sexual abuse. Some researchers have suggested that the senses of touch and sight connect directly to our brain’s fear centre (Lusebrink, 2004), which is why art therapy is ideally placed to work with traumatic memory.
The therapeutic relationship helps victims of trauma to feel safe and grounded in the present moment. This is essential before any of the traumatic memory is accessed so that they feel safe in the knowledge that the trauma has passed and that in the therapy room they are in the here and now. This can prevent them from feeling overwhelmed or ‘flooded’ as the traumatic memory is processed.
As traumatic memory is visually stored, connecting to it through art can be more immediate. It allows the person suffering from trauma to choose what they create, and they release aspects of the trauma at their own pace, which stops them being overwhelmed. For children, this can be a particularly useful tool as they may have been told by adults ‘not to tell’ of negative experiences such as abuse or neglect. The art allows for a non-verbal telling, which can make them feel safer and more likely to share their experience. They may also lack vocabulary so the image can allow them to bring words to what they feel.
The therapist can support you by discussing the work, putting words to the trauma. Adding narrative and context to the artwork with your art therapist allows the traumatic memory to be processed and placed in space and time, telling the brain it is no longer happening now. The memories are then stored as autobiographical memory rather than in the fear centre of the brain. This lessens their strong emotional content, which can help to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.
Lusebrink, V.B. (2004) Art therapy and the brain: An attempt to understand the underlying processes of art expression in therapy. Art Therapy. 21(3) pp.125-135.
Rausch, S.L., van der Kolk, B. A., Fisler, R.E. & Alpert, N.M. (1996) A symptom provocation study of posttraumatic stress disorder using positron emission tomography and script-driven imagery. Archives of General Psychiatry. 53(5) pp.380-387.