Art Therapy Studio Chicago, Ltd.
“Trauma” is a word that is often used as part of conversation, yet what does it really mean to encounter a trauma? At its most general, a trauma is a overwhelmingly stressful experience that causes a person to develop mistaken beliefs about the self and the world, and to subsequently act in ways that are not helpful or adaptive.
Some experiences of trauma are difficult to overlook: terrorist attacks, car accidents, assaults, physical or sexual abuse, exceptionally painful or intrusive medical interventions, and house fires. Events such as these, weather they are singular or repeated, force people to question their perception of personal safety and their view of the world. These types of experiences can give rise to intensely painful symptoms of trauma re-experiencing in the form of flashbacks and nightmares, and the closely associated avoidance of trauma related cues, or “triggers.” In addition, people who have survived major traumas may also experience increased anxieties, fears, phobias, and challenges connecting with others, enjoying life, and performing at work.
People who have not experienced a major trauma may still have encountered trauma in their lives in the form of a minor or “small-t” trauma. These types of experiences feel deeply upsetting to the individual, but may be not be perceived to others as highly problematic. Examples include being excluded by a peer group, receiving poor parental empathy as a child, or having been encouraged to feel personally deficient by those in authority roles. Minor traumas can become the underlying causes of poor self-esteem, limited self-confidence, and maladaptive behaviors including eating disorders and self-harming behaviors.
Traditional talk therapy, while a valuable component of therapy, has limits in its abilities to resolve trauma-related symptoms and associated psychological distress. This may be related to the nature of how trauma is stored within the brain and body—it is as if the sights, sounds, physical sensations, and beliefs about the self that are encountered at the time of the trauma become encapsulated in a raw, unprocessed state that resists benefitting from what we “know” cognitively to be true about our current safety and self-worth. The brain’s centers of verbal production and processing can become inaccessible to the visual, visceral, and emotional nature of trauma-inflicted dysfunction.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy has developed as an effective method to treat the symptoms of both major and minor traumas. This type of therapy uses standardized protocols to build mental resources, enhance adaptive psychological processes, and change self-sabotaging mistaken beliefs—moving people towards a fuller manifestation of their personal potential and well-being. EMDR therapy is informed by the concept that the mind is equipped with an inherent adaptive information processing system that moves trauma experiences from being “frozen” in an locked, isolated state to being fully integrated within the context of the healthy and flexible mind. Within EMDR, this information processing system is activated through the use of physical stimulus (guided eye movements or tactile and/or auditory taps) that encourage the active integration of both brain hemispheres while simultaneously engaging with specific aspects of traumatic memories. This model relies much less on verbal exchanges between the therapist and client than traditional talk therapy, and can work rapidly to resolve even long-standing trauma symptoms.
I find numerous overlaps and synchronicities between my practice of EMDR therapy and art therapy. I believe that at the root of this connection lies the fact that art therapy organically allows clients to utilize their verbal and non-verbal capacities as they explore and process aspects of both major and minor traumas within the context of a warm and supportive therapeutic relationship. Through the process of art making, as in EMDR, both brain hemispheres are actively engaged through specific and targeted interventions. While making art, the creative, somatic, intuitive, and emotional contributions of the right brain are woven together with the linguistic, analytical, narrative, and sequencing capabilities of the left brain—enabling greater integration of the brain that moves the client towards greater self-awareness, increased ability to self-regulate, and an improved ability to separate past trauma responses from current adaptive thoughts and behaviors.
In my clinical experience, the opportunity to move clients between art making and EMDR protocols offers increased flexibility and resources throughout therapy. Art making and sensory self-soothing interventions provide enhanced opportunities for clients to develop the resources essential to increase self-regulation prior to reprocessing trauma memories. Art making also adds options for of helping the client focus in on specific aspects of traumatic memories for targeted reprocessing through EMDR, and can help to comfortably pace the work and provide visual “roadmaps” of the process as it moves from onset to conclusion over the course of treatment. For clients who struggle with the traditional EMDR methods of bilateral stimulation, art related processes such as bilateral mark making using various art materials can move the client through reprocessing, providing another level of integrating experience through art making.
The brain’s tremendous capacities for growth and healing, from even the most significant major trauma or pervasive experience of minor trauma, is profound. I believe that art therapy and EMDR provide real and effective solutions for opening a fuller and more productive life. I chose to use these therapies as I recognize that they honor each person’s innate capacities for self-knowledge and self-healing, and provide opportunities for self-expression and repair that extend beyond what is possible through language alone.
Photo & Blog by Clare McCarthy
Dr. Mary Andrus DAT, ATR-BC, LCPC