Coloring has especially become instrumental as I recover from PTSD.
When I color during therapy, it creates a safe space for me to express painful feelings from my past. Coloring engages a different part of my brain that allows me to process my trauma in a different way. I can even talk about the most difficult memories of my sexual abuse without panicking.
Yet there's more to art therapy than coloring, despite what the adult coloring book trend may suggest. They’re onto something, though, as I’ve learned through my own experience. Art therapy, just like talk therapy, has enormous healing potential when done with a trained professional. In fact, for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), working with an art therapist has been a lifesaver.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder resulting from a traumatic event. Terrifying or threatening experiences like war, abuse, or neglect leave traces that get stuck in our memories, emotions, and bodily experiences. When triggered, PTSD causes symptoms like re-experiencing the trauma, panic or anxiety, touchiness or reactivity, memory lapses, and numbness or dissociation.
“Traumatic memories typically exist in our minds and bodies in a state-specific form, meaning they hold the emotional, visual, physiological, and sensory experiences that were felt at the time of the event,” says Erica Curtis, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist. “They’re essentially undigested memories.”
Recovering from PTSD means working through these undigested memories until they no longer cause symptoms. Common treatments for PTSD include talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). These therapy models aim to desensitize survivors by talking and expressing feelings about the traumatic event.
However, people experience PTSD through memory, emotion, and the body. Talk therapy and CBT may not be enough to address all of these areas. Reliving trauma is difficult. That’s where art therapy comes in.
What is art therapy?
Art therapy uses creative mediums like drawing, painting, coloring, and sculpture. For PTSD recovery, art helps process traumatic events in a new away. Art provides an outlet when words fail. With a trained art therapist, every step of the therapy process involves art.
Curtis is also a board-certified art therapist. She uses art-making throughout the PTSD recovery process. For example, to “help clients identify coping strategies and internal strengths to begin the journey of healing,” they may create collages of images representing internal strengths, she explains.
Clients examine feelings and thoughts about trauma by making a mask or drawing a feeling and discussing it. Art builds grounding and coping skills by photographing pleasant objects. It can help tell the story of trauma by creating a graphic timeline.
Through methods like these, integrating art into therapy addresses a person’s whole experience. This is critical with PTSD. Trauma is not experienced just through words.
How art therapy can help with PTSD
While talk therapy has long been used for PTSD treatment, sometimes words can fail to do the job. Art therapy, on the other hand, works because it provides an alternative, equally effective outlet for expression, say experts.
“Art expression is a powerful way to safely contain and create separation from the terrifying experience of trauma,” writes board-certified art therapist Gretchen Miller for the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children. “Art safely gives voice to and makes a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts, and memories visible when words are insufficient.”
Adds Curtis: “When you bring art or creativity into a session, on a very, very basic level, it taps into other parts of a person's experience. It accesses information ... or emotions that maybe can't be accessed through talking alone.”
PTSD, the body, and art therapy
PTSD recovery also involves reclaiming the safety of your body. Many who live with PTSD find themselves disconnected or dissociated from their bodies. This is often the result of having felt threatened and physically unsafe during traumatic events. Learning to have a relationship with the body, however, is critical for recovering from PTSD.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies,” writes Bessel van der Kolk, MD, in “The Body Keeps the Score.” “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
Art therapy excels for body work because clients manipulate artwork outside themselves. By externalizing difficult pieces of their trauma stories, clients begin to safely access their physical experiences and relearn that their bodies are a safe place.
“Art therapists in particular are trained to use media in all kinds of different ways and that might even be helping getting somebody more in their body,” Curtis says. “Just like art can bridge feelings and words, it can also be a bridge back into feeling grounded and safe in one's body.”
How to find the right art therapist
To find an art therapist qualified to work with PTSD, look for a trauma-informed therapist. This means the therapist is an art expert but also has other tools to support survivors on their recovery journey, like talk therapy and CBT. Art will always remain the centerpiece of treatment.
“When seeking art therapy for trauma, it’s important to seek a therapist who is specifically knowledgeable in the integration of trauma-based approaches and theories,” advises Curtis. “It’s important to note that any intervention done with visual and sensory materials can also be triggering to the client and should therefore only be used by a trained art therapist.”
A trained art therapist will have at least a master’s degree in psychotherapy with an additional art therapy credential. Many therapists may advertise they do art therapy. Only those with certified credentials (ATR or ATR-BC) have gone through the rigorous training essential for PTSD treatment. The Art Therapy Credential Board’s “Find A Credentialed Art Therapist” feature can help you find a qualified counselor.
Using art therapy to treat PTSD addresses the whole experience of trauma: mind, body, and emotion. By working through PTSD with art, what was a terrifying experience that caused lots of symptoms can become a neutralized story from the past.
Today, art therapy helps me deal with a traumatic time in my life. And I hope that soon enough, that time will be a memory I can choose to leave alone, never to haunt me again.
Renée Fabian is a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers mental health, music, the arts, and more. Her work has been published in Vice, The Fix, Wear Your Voice, The Establishment, Ravishly, The Daily Dot, and The Week, among others. You can check out the rest of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter @ryfabian.