The Role Art Therapy Can Play in Healing PTSD

Art therapy is a creative therapy and a valid mental health care strategy. Most often used in conjunction with more standard therapies, art therapy is proving to be especially useful for people struggling with trauma. PTSD affects many people and makes normal functioning difficult or impossible. Expression through art and the creative process with a professional art therapist can reduce PTSD symptoms and depression and make it easier to process past experiences.

If you or a loved one struggles with PTSD, you know that it can take over your life. Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, jumpiness, angry outbursts, avoidance, and other symptoms make it nearly impossible to enjoy life or live normally.

Professional care for PTSD is effective for many people. In addition to standard care, consider supplementing therapy and medications with art therapy.

The creative process can be healing for anyone, but especially those trying to overcome past trauma.

About Trauma and PTSD

Trauma is an emotional reaction to a scary, possibly life-threatening, event or situation. Many people experience such events with or without a traumatic response. Some people develop a serious mental health condition in response to trauma called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Anyone can develop PTSD in the face of trauma. Some of the populations with greater incidence of PTSD are women and combat veterans. PTSD causes intrusive and disturbing thoughts and intense emotions. It can trigger outbursts and lead to avoidance behaviors.

A strong reaction to a traumatic event is normal, but PTSD symptoms are debilitating and long-lasting. It is treatable, but also difficult to overcome. Standard care includes medications along with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and specialized, trauma-focused therapies.

What Is Art Therapy?

Many people benefit from alternative and creative therapies in addition to more standard mental health care. Art therapy is one of many of these that people with PTSD and other trauma disorders may find healing and useful.

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy is facilitated by a professional, credentialed art therapist. It is used to:

“Improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”

Art therapists are professional mental health providers. They guide patients through therapy using works of art, the creative process, and finished products to explore their inner world, emotions, behaviors, and past experiences. The AATA specifically states that art therapy benefits survivors of trauma.

Art Therapy and PTSD – The Research

That art therapy helps people struggling with trauma and PTSD is proven. Many studies have investigated the benefits of this approach and found it to be effective. Often in combination with other therapies and medications, art therapy helps people with PTSD.

  • Art Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. A study of veterans with PTSD randomized the group to receive either CBT alone or with art therapy. Both groups saw improvements in depression scores. Those who had art therapy saw improved processing of trauma, healthy distancing from trauma, and a greater ability to access their emotions.
  • Art Therapy Review. Researchers analyzed several studies of trauma and art therapy to find an overarching conclusion. Although the studies were small, they found significant evidence that art therapy relieved depression in this population. They also saw a decrease in general trauma symptoms.
  • Art Therapy for Traumatized Young Adults. A study of young adults who had experienced childhood trauma separated participants into two groups. One received standard therapy with arts and crafts. The other group received trauma-focused expressive art therapy. The latter group had a significantly greater reduction in PTSD symptoms at the end of the 16-week study.
  • Art Therapy for Help-Resistant Patients. A group of researchers wanted to find out if art therapy could help PTSD patients who do not respond well to or will not engage in standard care. They found the patients were willing to participate in and stick with art therapy. They were better able to express emotions and memories and had a reduction in symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts and stress.

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What Does Art Therapy Do for Traumatized Patients?

These are just a few of many studies that demonstrate the potential benefits of art therapy for all kinds of people with PTSD. The evidence is overwhelming, but it doesn’t necessarily answer the questions of how or why it helps. These are some leading ideas:

Trauma is Nonverbal

One reason that art therapy may be so useful is that trauma is a nonverbal mental health condition. The experience of trauma is deeply emotional. It is based on an evolutionary survival instinct that may predate verbal communication. When something is terrifying or life-threatening, we feel and react. Putting words to the experience is challenging.

Because trauma is a nonverbal experience, a nonverbal approach to care can be helpful. Using imagery and emotions, instead of words, art and the creative process can help traumatized patients heal.

Art Externalizes the Experience

Creating art is both an internal and external process. To create a work of art, you must access internal feelings, thoughts, and experiences, but you also need to put it down on paper, with paint, or in sculptural form.

Making something physical out of difficult internal emotions and experiences is beneficial to healing. Reliving and processing trauma is one of the most challenging parts of therapy but turning them into an external work of art can help.

Creating Art Boosts Positive Emotions

The process of creating art is therapeutic in many ways, but on a simple level, it makes people feel good. When you work with your hands to create something, it improves self-esteem and makes you feel better about yourself and your abilities.

Reactivating positive thoughts and feelings helps reduce negative emotions and behaviors. Art can become a healthy replacement coping mechanism for destructive habits, like drinking or drug use.

Art Therapy Improves Social Relationships

Patients benefiting from art therapy report that it provides a safe setting in which to communicate and establish relationships with others. PTSD tends to make people withdraw and become socially isolated. Their fears and reactions prevent them from connecting with others. Both individual and group art therapy sessions can help PTSD patients open up and engage socially in more appropriate and positive ways.

How to Benefit From Art Therapy

Whether you have begun another course of professional care or not, you can start benefiting from art therapy right away. Look for a therapist certified through the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Registered and Board Certified art therapists have proven they have the education, training, and knowledge necessary to guide patients.

Also look for a therapist with training and experience in trauma therapies. Art therapy can be useful for anyone, but trauma is a special case. You’ll get more out of sessions with an experienced trauma therapist.

If you have not had any professional care yet, consider looking for a residential program. Good residential facilities offer trauma-focused programming, individualized care plans, medical care, and a wide variety of alternative therapies, typically including art therapy.

Art therapy has been around for decades and is practiced by skilled, educated professional therapists. Their work provides countless benefits to all kinds of patients, including those impacted by trauma. If you or a loved one has PTSD, consider adding art therapy to the recovery plan. It’s a great place to start a healing journey after trauma.