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Art Therapy for Military Veterans with PTSD

Published: Oct 27, 12:19 pm

As the art therapy group for military veterans came to a close, there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the members that had taken part. A theme had been given to the group, based on the simple idea of a ‘journey’. Each of the eight pieces of work that were generated – a mixture of sketches, paintings and clay pieces – expressed unique responses to the metaphor, capturing feelings and memories channeled in a creative way that would play an important part in their recovery from combat related PTSD (Post traumatic Stress Disorder).
As an art therapist I have used these themed groups with military veterans to great effect, witnessing at the individual level veterans coming to grips for the first time with symptoms that have held them ‘hostage’ for years, and at the collective group level a rallying together as ‘brothers and sisters in arms’ as they recognize in each other’s work a fragmented piece of themselves.

Why is art such an effective form of treatment for military veterans with combat related PTSD? How does it work? If we focus on the key role that memory plays in the formation of trauma, it soon becomes clear how art therapy, as in image based form of intervention, helps to heal those traumatic memories.

Trauma has been described as a ‘speechless terror,’ (Van der kolk, 1994). With normal memory, language weaves together a consistent story of an event. Trauma-based memories, however, exist outside the framework of words, so that they lack a narrative thread. A trauma is experienced as an event that overwhelms the centers for speech and verbal processing, and are stored instead within the more primitive, emotional part of the brain. Such memories remain fragmented, frozen in time, as bits and pieces of sensory experience. Taken out of context and isolated, these memories can return, unbidden, as non-verbal fragments of sensory information, re-experienced as happening in the present (commonly known as flashbacks).

This being the case, art therapy is ideally placed to express experiences that are impossible to articulate and think about verbally, thereby helping in the processing and integration of trauma memories. As the well known phrase reminds us – ‘a picture paints a thousand words.’ Put somewhat more technically, ‘Art therapy involves communication between brain hemispheres whereby non-verbal right brain sensations are combined with verbal left brain thought processes.’ (Lobban et al, 2018, 104).

The group of eight military veterans that created art works around the ‘journey’ theme, were able to access their trauma memories through the ‘voice’ of the image, giving a shape and meaning to their ‘speechless terror’. Here was a metaphor that could help them safely map out their life experiences. Helpful prompts were given: think of your journey as a road, a river, a spiral shape, a maze.’ In one image a fiery dragon blocked the pathway, in another a figure in a rowing boat was surrounded by sharks. Veterans could represent their military trauma(s) however they wished.

The therapeutic benefits of this process were reinforced by the supportive energy that working together in a group provides, creating a resonance of solidarity among the veterans, a sense of no longer feeling so alone and isolated with their symptoms of PTSD.

Lobban, J. , Mackay, K., Redgrave, M., Rajagopal, S. Art therapy with military veterans. Routledge, 2018.
van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1, 253 – 265.