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How does art therapy work with trauma?

The following was written by Chloë Chapman - an art psychotherapist In Brighton, UK. It examines the causes and manifestations of trauma, and how it can be treated

What is trauma?

The word trauma is used so often in our culture that much of its meaning has been lost. From a psychological perspective, trauma is the result of an overwhelming threat to our person that ignites our fight/flight/freeze stress response. If a person is overwhelmed by threat, they may develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where their body is stuck in the stress response and continues to behave as if it is fighting the enemy.

What can cause trauma?

Trauma can be caused by neglect and abuse; emotional, physical or sexual. The witnessing of domestic violence or traumatic events, such as accidents, injury or war are also known causes. Evidence suggests that those with adverse childhood experience are more likely to experience PTSD than those with secure attachments to caregivers in childhood.

What does trauma look like?

Trauma symptoms include reliving the event(s) in flashbacks or nightmares, avoiding situations that may trigger traumatic memories, depression, anxiety, zoning out (dissociation) and low self-esteem.

Trauma can manifest as disturbed sleep, panic attacks, a fast heartbeat, breathlessness, ‘jumpiness’, having highly expressed emotions or being withdrawn. Some people express their distress through physical illness or pain (known as somatisation). Traumatised people may display an inability to regulate their emotions, being very quick to anger or upset.

Trauma in children

In children, trauma may manifest in repetitive play scenarios or paintings of the traumatic incident, being anxiously attached to a caregiver or having slow development. They may appear cut off, lose their ability for creative play, or be unable to play with others.

Associations and triggers

Traumatic memories can arise seemingly out of nowhere because they are not fully processed. This is often in response to unconscious triggers, for example in cases of sexual abuse, survivors may fear an aspect of physical appearance that their abuser had. Or, for those who have experienced a tragic car accident, hearing the screech of car brakes can set their nervous system reeling.

Why is art therapy used to treat trauma?

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 (the amygdala) 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.


How art therapy treats trauma

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.

If you or someone you care about are experiencing symptoms of trauma, contact me to find out how art therapy can help.

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