I can attest to the fact that art therapy can help with PTSD. When I paint, I am in a world of my own. This world has no pains, no wounds, no accident and no worries. This is my world and only colors and brushes exist in this realm of mine. When I am a part of this magical would, I can talk about my worries, about my visions of the accident (I was in a car accident couple of years back, I am lucky to be even alive) which I continue to revisit on an everyday basis and finally why I am scared to step foot outside my house yet I find the courage to drive my 2 wheeler. Contrary to popular beliefs, art therapy is not only coloring pre-drawn images in a coloring book as many adult coloring books mention.
Art therapy has a healing potential like no other. It works like talk therapy but involves engaging in art alongside talking instead of just talking.
What is PTSD?
PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological disorder that stems up due to an event of trauma. Threatening, terrifying or near-death experiences, abuses or war leave psychological footprints on our memories, bodily experiences and emotions. If there is an incident that triggers anger or a negative emotion later, the PTSD causes the individual to re-experience the trauma and anxiety which was experienced during the main trauma.
Traumatic memories have a way to exist in our minds in the form of a state-specific manner as in, they control the visual, emotional, sensory and psychological experiences felt during the time of the tragic event. These undigested and unprocessed memories manifest later and wreak havoc on the person’s life.
- Overwhelming emotions
- Flashbacks of the event
- Disturbing thoughts
- Anger issues
- Detached feelings
PTSD in case of war veterans
It has been observed that every 1 in 5 member returning from a tour of Afghanistan or Iraq suffers from PTSD. They are plagued with graphic images of war, nightmares, overwhelming emotions, images, sadness over loss of friends and colleagues etc.
Coming home to family members and friends who have not been through the same experience as the veteran, they feel dislodged from reality and isolated. they most often feel misunderstood and overwhelmed by their grief and pain.
Such people are afraid that no one will understand what they have ben though and are still going through. thus, they do not ask or accept help from others, Service men have been observed to turn to alcohol, drugs and even suicide to get away from their distress.
Art therapy can help deal with PTSD in case of war veterans.
Art therapy mainly aims to work through these memories to the point where these memories no longer pose a threat to the person concerned or the people around him/her. Since most people experience these memories in the form of visual images and auditory memories, reliving the same trauma repeatedly is extremely painful and unnerving. This is where art therapy comes into focus.
How can art therapy help deal with PTSD?
Art therapy makes use of creative mediums like painting, drawing, coloring and sculpting. Art helps people process the traumatic events of their life slowly, steadily and in a different manner than conventional methods. Art therapy provides an escape route when they are incapable of verbally speaking about their deep-rooted emotions and feelings.
Art allows people to experience their emotions in a safe space. It allows people to identify the internal strength and identify the coping strategies to begin the journey of healing from the inside. Patients using art therapy for coping may examine their feelings and trauma by drawing a feeling or forming a mask and discussing the same. People may also photograph pleasant objects, then design a graphic timeline and share the experiences.
In some cases, trauma patients might not be entirely aware of their thoughts and emotions. They might feel anxious, angry, hyper-vigilant amongst a variety of other emotions and need a way out to release all those pent up emotions. In a lot of PTSD cases, the patients are not even aware of their feelings at that particular moment. Art can only help these people explore and understand the answers they are looking for, get can also help them heal by allowing them to safely revisit their trauma and heal from the inside out. This is the most powerful way to explore the difficult feelings and the experiences which surrounds the incident. It allows the patient to chart a timeline and understand the evolving feelings.
Research shows art therapy is connected to neural pathways
Thanks to all the advances in the field of medicine, research has been able to validate several claims made by art therapists about its effect on the brain. Art therapy can help deal with PTSD by forming useful mind-body collections, conscious and unconscious bridges of mental activity, communication between the cerebral cortex and the limbic system and finally allowing the brain to make use of both visual and mental imagery
Art therapy is normally used with a wide range of treatment options to find something that works based on the patient’s needs.
There are different art therapy approaches that work on dealing with PTSD. Let’s start with how ART therapy can help deal with PTSD.
Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART)
ART is an efficient and emerging therapy for PTSD and other psychiatric conditions. ART therapy is derived from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) but it has a more procedural, easier and direct approach. Art has been observed to be easy to learn, can be used without preparation, homework or narration. Art therapy can help deal with PTSD and is useful for treating a variety of symptoms/conditions. Only 3-4 sessions are needed for the patient tp observe a positive response. However, probably the best part of this therapy is that the patient does not need to do any sort of homework between sessions.
Art has been observed to act as an effective psychotherapy model in treating:
- Personal Resilience
Along with treating the above mentioned conditions, ART can also be used to combat the symptoms of:
- Panic disorders
- Antisocial behaviors
- General functioning
Art can act as a release for people facing panic due to their PTSD. When a person indulges in drawing, talking is not needed. Every stroke of that painting or artwork depicts a story. When a person’s primary attention is towards the drawing at hand, it becomes easier to talk, to deal and to discuss about their trauma and past experiences.
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Creative engagement nurtures:
Engaging in any form of creativity or art therapy can help deal with PTSD. Art provides the patient a medium like sculpting, writing music, playing a musical instrument, painting etc. which allows him or her to work through the difficult past or the emotional trauma which is holding them back. At the same time, controlling a medium, gives the person a confidence that they can make something beautiful with minimal materials. this sense of control is very important for PTSD sufferers as the primary feeling associated with such trauma is the loss of control.
Therapists focus on using artistic mediums which are most agreeable with the patient. this helps the patient work through their emotional pain.
Patients engaging in such therapy report feeling uplifted at the end of their sessions. they have stated that they feel more mindful regarding their behavior, Some patients have reported that such therapy has actually made them feel again. They were so depressed by their trauma that they felt numb. Art therapy forced them out of their shell and made them feel again. All these evidences account for the fact that art therapy can help deal with PTSD in war veterans and otherwise.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
Cognitive processing therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. it s primary focus is to help patients to learn to modify their beliefs which might be making their trauma worse.
CPT is generally spread out over 12 sessions. the main aim is to help the patient understand the traumatic event they suffered through and conceptualize it. This helps them make sense of the situation and reduce the negative effect on the same on their day to day life.
CPT is used by psychologists regularly to treat depression, phobias etc. However, a few studies, show that CPT along with art therapy can help deal with PTSD. These two make a highly effective treatment for the resolution of PTSD in case of war veterans. According to a randomized control trial done in the year 2016 on war veterans found that veterans who were administered art therapy along with CPT showed improvement in trauma processing. According to veterans, this method was more favorable than CPT alone, since this method allowed for enhanced trauma recall, healthy distancing and an elevated access to their emotions.
As a personal user of art therapy, I can assure you that this is not a hoax. Art therapy can help deal with PTSD. I have PTSD to the extent that sometimes I am afraid to step down from my bed. But my mental strength combined with art therapy has allowed me to live a normal life despite of all the PTSD demons who return to haunt me every time I am on the road. I never knew I could paint. I started painting as a way to focus my mind away from the pain of the car accident which I was recovering from. However, art gave me so much more and it gives me so so much more on an everyday basis to look forward to. It is time that we take our mental health care into our own hands and not leave it to chance.
Do you think that art therapy can help deal with PTSD? Have you ever tried art therapy? How was your experience? If you wish to share your stories as part of the blog post, please contact me on one of my social media channels.