On working through trauma with art therapy

Published on October 23, 2021

A trauma refers to a wound caused by a tear in a barrier like the skin. Psychological trauma involves piercing the defences protecting mental space or the internal world. Traumatic events may shatter the belief that life maintains order, meaning and continuity. A person who has experienced trauma could have problems with memory, sleep and concentration; a restricted range of emotions; feeling estranged from others; and feel easily agitated, angry or depressed. He or she may “relive” the incident through nightmares or intrusive images, causing the individual to struggle with trying not think about the memory. 


Psychological therapy could assist with working through the trauma. Sometimes a short course of therapy like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) could help restore a client's psychological functioning. There are also situations when more time may be useful to work at a deeper level. The goals of the therapy are usually identified in the assessment.


By virtue of the creative process, art therapy could be a valuable therapeutic approach to trauma work. Art therapy is an art-based approach to psychotherapy, and a state regulated profession. Depending on their training, art therapists may apply CBT or psychodynamic psychotherapy to their work. These methods have provided favourable outcomes for the treatment of traumatic stress in the research literature.


Art therapy involves exploring the relationships between the image, client and art therapist. Clients may draw from a range of materials (e.g. pencils, paint, pastels or clay) to give form to their feelings, memories and desires. The art therapist aims to provide a trusted space to reflect on the meaning of the creative process and art product in the sessions.


For trauma work, art therapy could offer clients a means to describe, organise and integrate their memories and emotions. Through attention with the therapist on the image, clients may think about the therapist’s responses, which could be helpful for understanding other perspectives, and developing a language for feelings. For nightmares, art therapy could assist with "imagery rehearsal" and "grounding techniques", two strategies to help clients restore their psychological integration.

The art therapy image may evoke memories much like a photograph. However, the image in art therapy could reveal memories through absent or distorted material. It is what the client does not intend to draw (but does so anyway) that may shed light on what might be forgotten or not thought about. Bringing together conscious and unconscious thought, art therapy could help clients integrate their sense of self. 

Most importantly, art therapy could provide a space for clients to understand their preconceptions and tolerate a sense of uncertainty. This can be a key component to building a narrative about the trauma. The creative process offers clients a sense of choice and control. Being creative can also be deeply empowering when witnessed and supported.


Finally, the art therapy image offers a sense of continuity: a record of an event, the session. Over time, recurring images may emerge, underscoring the meaning of the journey. The images may also transform over the course of treatment, reflecting new insights and learning.

Category(s):Abuse / Abuse Survivor Issues, Art Therapy

Written by:

Stephen Radley

I have a Master of Science in Counselling Psychology and Diploma of Art Therapy. I qualified as an art therapist in 1996 and since then I have worked many people challenged with emotional difficulties and relationship problems. I offer Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Counselling in Hanoi and online. Please contact me if you have any questions or wish to make a referral. Thank you.

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