Art therapy is known to help patients suffering from depression, post traumatic stress disorder, learning as well as eating disorders. Off late art therapy is being used to help soldiers retiring from the war zone. Military personnel often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries resulting in unresolved symptoms for a prolonged period of time.
This article primarily focuses on the effects of art therapy on military servicemen who suffer from past traumatic stress disorders and comorbid brain injuries. However, to understand the effects of art therapy, we must first understand, what is art therapy?
Art therapy is the use of art to uncover deep rooted thoughts and emotions in order to help the person deal with his or her emotions better. Art therapy is generally performed in the presence of a certified art therapist.
Military servicemen experience psychological and physical trauma far beyond the battlefield. Past traumatic stress is experienced by such men in the form of avoidance, re-experiencing the horrors, changes in aroused as well as numbing. Such factors can make surviving through daily life a huge task for the person involved. Further more, the emotional regions which were activated during the battle get stuck in the mode of hypervigilance or defense. These emotions can get triggered by any benign stimulus of day to day life. Trauma suffered by the the veterans during the war, can resurface during daily instances leading to sudden in behavior, sensitivity to pain and impede the development of a post military identity.
Art therapy treatment for war veterans suffering from past traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury:
There are two evidence based psychotherapy programs in effect for war veterans: the cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure therapy (PE) for the treatment of PTSD. The purpose of PE is to promote emotional processing in patients through the process of deliberate confrontation with the trauma related stimuli via imaginal exposure to the traumatic stimuli and in vivo processes.
How does art therapy help war veterans?
Recent studies have implicated that traumatic memories get encoded in a non-verbal manner in the brain. The latest research indicates that viewing images of the traumatic event or object can had to an elevation in the hark rate heart rate, skin and breathing sensations. These results implicates that the use of a non-verbal treatment mode like art therapy to treat mental trauma can be extremely useful. The process of creation of art allows the person to access the painful memories in a non-threatening manner.
Art therapy can provide trauma victims a safe way to access their pent up emotions from a safe distance, instead of directly talking about the hurtful feelings and thoughts. Art therapy for creativity has been used to help people understand and process the complicated frightening emotions which only cognitive treatments like CPT or PE do not provide.
Research has proven art therapy’s effectiveness
A study done by Decker et al. in 2019 conducted an experiment on a group of war veterans who were suffering from war related PTSD. Those veterans were administered CPT along with art therapy. However, an other group of war veterans were administered CPT along with psychotherapy but no art therapy. The studies showed that the group which did not use art therapy had lower reduction in PTSD and depression scores. They also showed less response to the treatment in general.
Art therapy causes improvement in the brainwave activity. Making art has been observed to activate the brain’s reward pathway, indicating towards a potential for are using a positive emotional factor through the creation of creative expression. In the art therapy sessions, all forms of art practices are encouraged like painting, drawing, sculpting, doodling etc. Some people may choose to only engage in painting while others may prefer making a collage. The modality of the creative arts can either be structured or unstructured. It primarily depends on the preference of the specific individual, their preferred manner of expressing their thoughts and creative expression. Veterans can also choose to engage in therapeutic writing sessions as well as workshops for creative writing along with their other treatment processes like physical therapy, medical and nursing care, family therapy etc.
A war veteran’s healing journey through art therapy
Through art therapy session, veterans have reported that they gained an understanding of the combat-related stress. They understood what were the triggers which were leading to stress causing an impedance in their cognitive abilities. They further gained an insight into which memories were inaccessible due to the trauma versus which memories were not being stored itself due to their inability to focus on present. Once the veteran understood this, he was finally able to engage with others and also improve the cognitive abilities and quality of regular life.
He was also able to regain control on what he wanted to communicate non-verbally and verbally. Art therapy also allowed the veteran to connect with others and convey his emotions regarding his deployment to the war zone eventually, the return was able to Jain school, earn a bachelor’s degree and then 9 nursing degree too. He also reported to be happier since the time he had been able to communicate about his emotions verbally.