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Can Art Therapy Help Heal Trauma?

Updated: May 13

A person is painting a sunset on a piece of paper to symbolize how art therapy can help heal trauma

The term "trauma" is frequently used to describe deeply emotional and physically impactful experiences in a person's life. Traumatic events or memories can carry profound weight into our future, jeopardizing our sense of self, our relationships with others, and our overall way of life. The discussions surrounding mental health and trauma have gained significant importance not only within our community but across the globe. In recent years, these conversations have also extended to explore the potential benefits of creative and expressive therapies.

Art therapy has emerged as a successful approach in the treatment of trauma, demonstrating a positive impact on the lives and well-being of individuals of all ages. This success may stem from the unique qualities of creativity and the expressive process, which provide therapeutic care to those who have experienced trauma. For instance, while trauma treatment is often associated with cognitive or brain-centric approaches, art therapy delves into the healing strengths of somatic, sensory-based, and expressive methods within a framework known as "Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy (TIEAT)."

Expressive and creative actions can offer a less-threatening and highly personalized way to process traumatic memories.

In our current climate, it is more crucial than ever to gain a deeper understanding of how creative therapies have assisted individuals across Canada in their healing journeys from trauma. However, to do so effectively, it is essential to first comprehend the true nature of trauma.

What is Trauma?

The term "trauma" encompasses a range of challenging emotional consequences that result from experiencing distressing events, including feelings of shame, helplessness, powerlessness, and intense fear. According to the Canadian Addictions & Mental Health (CAMH) Organization, trauma is defined as "a lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event." The impact of trauma involves a unique combination of hyperarousal, learned conditioning, and shattered meaning propositions, all of which can be detrimental to an individual's sense of safety, self-identity, emotional regulation, and ability to navigate relationships.

Defining trauma can be challenging, as it encompasses events or memories that may occur suddenly or over time. It is also influenced by individual responses and defense mechanisms, making the same event more traumatic for one person than another.

A man is huddled on the floor with kraft paper on it. He is scribbling in different colours to represent the art therapy for trauma

Different Types of Trauma

Trauma results from events or circumstances that are physically or emotionally harmful and have lasting adverse effects on an individual's functioning and overall well-being. There are different ways trauma is experienced, depending on the individual and surrounding circumstances. Trauma-Informed Care categorizes trauma into three major types:

  • Acute - a single incident

  • Chronic - repeated and prolonged abuse

  • Complex - exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events.

For example, as stated by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, trauma can stem from various life challenges such as bullying, domestic violence, natural disasters, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, traumatic grief, and other reasons. In essence, "trauma" is defined as "when [an individual] feels intensely threatened by an event he or she is involved in or witnesses, we call that event a trauma" (quoted by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network).

Recent research on traumatic memories challenges our collective understanding of memory itself.

How Can Art Therapy Help with Trauma?

Expressive and creative actions can offer a less-threatening and highly personalized way to process traumatic memories. This approach provides a space of containment and safety for individuals from diverse backgrounds and across age groups. Art therapy, as a form of expressive therapy, integrates art and the creative process to explore traumatic memories and experiences within a therapy setting that promotes a sense of safety for expression.

Recent research on traumatic memories challenges our collective understanding of memory itself. It suggests that memory is not always a continuous and uninterrupted process and that memory accuracy does not necessarily degrade over time. Talwar (2007) reveals how many individuals can vividly recall traumatic memories, emotions, and sensory sensations such as smells, touch, taste, or sounds, related to the trauma for months or even years later. Consequently, art therapy can assist individuals in processing these memories or sensations by allowing "the mind to constantly re-assemble old impressions and attach them to new information," which can be safely externalized through art.

A blank sheet of paper. A woman with silver nail polish is holding black paintbrush with black paint. This is symbolizing art therapy for trauma.

What is 'Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy (TIEAT)?

Dr. Cathy Malchiodi's book, "Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body, and Imagination in the Healing Process," provides a comprehensive definition of trauma-informed art therapy as an approach that focuses on integrating "trauma-informed practices, arts-based interventions, and embodied awareness concepts to support trauma reparation and recovery." TIEAT incorporates art, music/sound, dance/movement, enactment/improvisation, storytelling/narrative, play, and imagination as essential components when addressing trauma.

Find an Art Therapist Near You

Regardless of previous artistic experience, art-making is a powerful tool for individuals to share, honour, and embrace a meaningful experience when investing in their well-being and health.

To find out more about art therapy, or begin to explore these ideas in a more formalized setting, our care partnerships programs can bring art therapy into your long-term care home, school, and more. If you’re looking for 1-on-1 options, our creative psychotherapy offering at connects art therapy with psychotherapy to provide you with a unique pathway to self-discovery and self-expression.

Finding a music or art psychotherapist can help you achieve your goals in a fun, effective way.

References for further reading:

Malchiodi, C. (2022). Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy. New York: Sussex.

Talwar, S. (2007). Accessing traumatic memory through art making: An art therapy trauma protocol (ATTP). The arts in psychotherapy, 34(1), 22-35.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (1998). Trauma and memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52(S1), S52-S64.

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