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Art Therapy and Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (P.T.S.D.)

Published: Aug 15, 09:18 am

As we remember in 2014 the centenary of the 1st World War, black and white film footage comes to mind, capturing the disturbing scenes of young men scrambling “over the top”, stumbling their way through a hail of machine gun fire and bursting shells. Many of those who survived had their lives blighted by shell shock, a psychological condition we now know as P.T.S.D (Post Traumatic Shock Disorder). For those soldiers who reacted to the stress of combat this way, the authorities often showed a pitiful lack of understanding of the condition, which at the time could even be misconstrued as cowardice.

It was, however, in the wake of the Vietnam war, where those suffering symptoms of P.T.S.D. exceeded 830,000, that the condition entered the domain of public awareness.

P.T.S.D. does not only impact the lives of veterans, but can appear as symptoms in anyone who has suffered a severe shock, be it a car accident, a victim of crime, or an adult survivor of sexual abuse.

There are a host of therapies that can help people with P.T.S.D. One, however, that focuses on creativity as a treatment, is art therapy. Before seeing how it works, here’s a little more information on P.T.S.D.

The symptoms of P.T.S.D. can profoundly impact a person’s life, disrupting it in a way that leaves a person feeling damaged at the very core of their being. They no longer know who they are. When they consider their former selves, they meet with a stranger. For some people it can feel like they are losing their sanity. In terms of being in control of their lives, they are no longer “masters of their own house”.

Put simply, P.T.S.D. is the result of a person’s response to an overwhelmingly stressful event, inclusive of war, rape, or abuse. Such a reaction is a normal one by a normal person to an abnormal situation.

Whatever event it is, it is so devastating that it would distress almost anyone. It is often sudden and is perceived by the person as dangerous to self and others. Its impact disables the persons ability to cope.

The kinds of events (catastrophic by nature) that cause P.T.S.D. can be grouped into three categories:

1/Intentional Human;
(Man-made, deliberate, malicious). These include events such as combat (war), abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), criminal assault etc.

2/Unintentional Human;
(Accidents, technological disasters). These include industrial accidents, collapse of building, loss of body part etc.

3/Acts of nature/Natural Disasters;
(Hurricane, flood, fire etc.).

How can art therapy, as an intervention, help to relieve the devastating effects of P.T.S.D.?

The essential value of art therapy is in the creative process. A person does not need to have previous experience or skill in art in order to benefit from the treatment. The focus is not on the quality of the end product.

As a therapy it involves the use of various kinds of art media (such as paints, pastels, clay) through which the person expresses and explores the issues and concerns that have brought her to the treatment.

Research has identified a number of core therapeutic mechanisms of art therapy that help to reduce the symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, hypervigilance (i.e when one’s attention is constantly on red alert) and emotional numbing.

Art Therapy mechanisms of change//

1/Reconstruction of Memories:
With any kind of trauma, there is often a memory fragmentation, as the brain, overwhelmed by the experience, is unable to store and codify the event in a coherent, narrative form. Without the ability to give a verbalized account of the trauma, expressing it in a coherent way, these memory fragments (raw and unprocessed), can become autonomous, invading consciousness in the form of dissociative flashbacks. One suddenly and vividly experiences the memories, triggered by chance occurances, as if they were happening in the present.

Art Therapy addresses this fragmentation in a non-verbal way, reuniting different aspects of the traumatic memory, presenting it in an image as a coherent whole. This externalization in visual form is essential to the healing of such memories. It is only when the depiction of the experience is viewed as something that belongs to the person and yet is external to them, that such material can be transformed from something acutely alarming in the present, to a record that belongs to the past.

2/Reduction of Arousal:
Art Therapy can be inherently relaxing. It offers an antidote to the extreme general physical arousal that characterizes P.T S.D., experienced in many forms such as hypervigilance, startled response, irritability and anger. This can play an important part in the stabilization process at the beginning of treatment.

3/Progressive Exposure:
Avoidance of traumatic memories is a central aspect of P.T.S.D.. This can manifest itself as avoidance of people, places, or anything that reminds the person of the trauma. A person will also avoid thoughts and feelings about the trauma. Unfortunately, avoidance only leads to a perpetuation of traumatice symptoms. By being progressively exposed to trauma based imagery, often in the form of metaphor (which can help to establish an emotional distance from the material), memories, once overwhelming, become less powerful, resulting in the gradual diminsihment of symptoms.

4/Safe Expression of Feelings:
Having the opportunity to channel feelings safely with regard to trauma based experiences can be immensely empowering. Addressing highly, painful emotive material and being able to place it within an image (which acts as a kind of “container”), gives the artist a sense of control. Such emotional self-efficacy can be rewarding for individuals as they learn that using art this way is destructive neither to oneself or others.

5/Reawakening of Positive Emotions:
Traumatized war veterans, in order to avoid negative emotions, will also shut down on positive emotions aswell, achieving a kind of flatline response to every experience. Art therapy can directly address this emotional numbing. Art activities are inherently enjoyable, generating well-being, resurrecting pleasure.

6/Enhancement of self esteem:
In individual and group art therapy, shameful or troubling personal material (linked with the traumatic event), emerges within the context of a non-judgemental therapeutic setting. This is especially so within the group matrix, where the disclosure, through imagery, of disturbing events are accepted and even appreciated by others in the group. Self esteem develops with the support of other group members who are able to respect each other’s struggles and growth.