Thursday, November 19, 2015

What is trauma and what art therapy can do for you

 One of the reasons for writing this blog is that I am constantly being inspired by the power of images. It never ceases to amaze me how image making has the capacity to tap into the innermost human experience. To an art therapist, this introspective aspect of art making becomes even more apparent  and essential within the context of  therapy and healing.

As an illustration, I would like to talk about a client that I worked with a few years ago. I have chosen this particular case not only because I believe in the efficacy of art therapy but also because I want to highlight another important issue which is pervasive but often unaddressed or ignored in our society, thus my intention is two pronged. The issue I am referring to is abuse, physical, mental and sexual  which often results in trauma to the victim relative to the degree of the abuse.

I started working with Tasha (pseudonym) when she was 5 years old. At 3 years of age Tasha had suffered from horrendous sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Tasha who was now living with her aunt (the abuse had been reported and the father incarcerated) was brought for art therapy because she was unable to settle down and form an attachment to the latter. Tasha had no conscious memory of the abuse she had suffered many times, hence, when asked who her favourite person was, she would reply, “my father”.

You may ask, what good could it have done poor Tasha to dig up her abusive past through therapy? Why not let the trauma remain hidden? To better understand why Tasha was brought for art therapy to process her trauma and how it helped her, lets take a deeper look at the etiology of trauma.
Tasha's artwork

Trauma is a psychological phenomenon caused by a distressing and/or life threatening event that can cause chronic anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in it’s sufferer. Trauma can occur due various reasons, the most common being: illness, accident, abuse, war, divorce, loss and so on.
Post trauma the victim goes through various phases such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. This is also called processing the trauma or finding a resolution for it.  However, in cases such as Tasha’s, the trauma occurred in early childhood and was so severe that it became repressed or was wiped out from her conscious memory.

Unprocessed trauma can have long-term negative consequences, ranging from insecurity, emotional numbing, anger/aggression, addiction, self-harm and nightmares etc.  No matter what the intensity of the trauma or it’s cause it is advisable not to ignore it’s occurrence.

Research shows that when trauma occurs in childhood, its memories are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain that is pre-verbal and not accessible through language. Therefore, verbalizing the trauma is not possible just as happened in Tasha’s case.  In order to gain access to Tasha’s  memory  of her abuse it became necessary to tap into a part of her brain that was non-verbal where the trauma could be accessed without re-traumatising her. Hence she was referred for art therapy. In order for her to heal and to come to terms with what she had gone through, the traumatic memories had to be reviewed at a non-verbal level first so that eventually they could be transformed into non-traumatic memories or contextualised in a way that would enable her to accept what had happened.

The time to process trauma depends upon it’s severity and it would have required many years of therapy for Tasha to come to terms with her abuse but at least coming for art therapy was a start. I was able to see Tasha for a few months before I moved on to another placement but I hope she continued on the journey that she had begun.

It is advisable to be vigilant around our families and children and attend to signs of anxiety and/or stress without brushing them aside. With children especially it is critical to equip them with the knowledge of abuse/molestation and to inculcate in them trust and confidence to talk about these issues if and when they occur. Even though some of us may not have access to therapy or therapists, sometimes just opening up to a loved one and talking through things can be liberating and therapeutic.

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