A few weeks back, I got a chance to be a part of the Expressive Arts class. I thought that it will be an art class with all the techniques and I will bring back a masterpiece to hang on my walls. However, it was immensely different. It wasn’t limited to paint boxes and brushes and I didn’t bring back a masterpiece but a calm mind. While going for therapy I was a bit skeptical and apprehensive, I thought that I am a novice and it is such a cliché, you start painting because of trauma and there you go! You paint a masterpiece. However, after the session proved to be entirely different.
So what is Expressive Arts? And what is the science behind it, let’s get into depth…
Arts therapy uses different avenues to inquire into personal life. A therapist uses different techniques from art forms like drama, poetry, painting, dance or other compositions to probe into the life of the patient. The therapy isn’t just confined to visual arts and the therapist not only enquires the incident but the feelings experienced behind that incident and how it is related to the current mental state of the patient.
To understand why art therapy in the long term can be effective and how it is better than just talk based therapy we have to understand how individuals deal with trauma. There are reportedly two ways of dealing with trauma- One is the adaptive method, in which the individual processes the stressful event in a supportive environment by moving through the normal stages of grief and loss. The other is the non-adaptive method; here the event is pushed behind a wall in order to seek emotional and effective relief from the distress it causes.
The nonadaptive method of dealing with trauma refreshes the trauma after a brief period of time such that in some cases (PTSD) the trauma can be psychologically aroused by a sensory experience like the smell, visual impulse, etc. The mental image of the trauma is tired in both verbal and non-verbal memory. It persists there for a long time, even decades.
So coming back to the topic, art represents the mind of its creator. McNamee (2004) designed the “Bilateral Art” protocol and argues from her observations with clients that art therapy involves both left and right brain functions, and integrates both verbal and non-verbal processes. She describes bilateral art as a process of using “both hands in an effort to stimulate memories and experiences that reside in both sides of the brain”
Therefore when both the hands are used to paint the picture then both hemispheres of the brain are highlighted, the trauma residing behind “the wall” breaks in and can be dealt with in a rational manner. We have to understand that after any tragedy the period of grieving is very important. This period of grief when absent can be triggered using art therapy. In an art therapy
session the left hemisphere offers an explanation to the right hemispheric output in the form of a created image. The right hemisphere deals with visual motor activities, intuition, emotions, body, sensory, automatic skills and the procedures involved in what we call creativity.
At the start of therapy, the patient is asked to distract himself from all thoughts and draw a painting which has metaphors related to the traumatic incident. Then the patient is asked some questions while drawing the pictures. The questions are short and precise.
He is asked to draw with both hands.
The process of creating the image helps the client to observe his/her thoughts and actions while becoming aware of the sensorimotor experience, promoting proprioception. The walking back and forth allows for activation between left and right brain process. In creating the image, left brain processes, of deciding between colors, brushes, and sequential decisions using analytical thinking, alternate with right brain processes, activating the spatial, visual motor, emotions, and sensory regions. During this process, the mediating limbic structures, the hippocampus
and amygdala, are creating a sequence of events and assigning the events their emotional signiﬁcance. Thus this helps in activating the brain areas linked to trauma and makes the patient or the creator aware of his emotions. His choice of colors is also studied by the psychologist to infer how strongly and prominently the creator feels about a particular incident. For example:
Drama based therapy
Drama therapy is a group based therapy based on the collective trauma a group has faced. For example the war victims. It not only helps in releasing the emotions but also strengthens the cohesion in the group, eliminate the differences and collective understanding of the trauma the group has gone through.
Drama therapies create safe, playful environments where patients are able to act out anxieties or conflicts due to their trauma. The goal is to evoke a patient’s emotions and provide a platform on which one’s anxiety can be expressed and the stigma of those emotions can be expelled. Drama therapy has been used with a group of Vietnam veterans, for example, where patients acted out confrontations with enemy fighters or personal events, such as punishment scenes where the patients or others are chastised for weakness. These scenes enabled the veterans to see that they were not alone in their anger and grief.
Feedback from patients with PTSD who have participated in Expressive Writing. “I thought a lot about what I wrote in between the writing sessions, and each one was easier to get through than the last. Before the writing, I held back from telling others about (the trauma). I never told anyone about it. But afterward, I opened up to close friends about it, and I think that it made our relationships better.” “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about (my traumas). I was really down before I did this, but now I feel a lot better. It’s as if a huge burden has been lifted.”
Poetry is a weapon which is used in trauma therapy. I personally have undergone Narrative Expression Therapy. In my treatment of PTSD, I was asked to write letters to the people who caused trauma. I expressed all my anger, which took multiple attempts. It surely helped me to release the suppressed anger.
Dance Movement Therapy
As defined by Psychology today DMT is the psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance to support intellectual, emotional, and motor functions of the body. In DMT the trainer recognizes the pattern of dance and relates it with emotions. There is something called therapeutic intervention in which the trainer intervenes using a mirror which helps the patient/dancer to recognize patterns and think more clearly or show flags or something to indicate that he is understanding the emotion clearly. This therapy bridges the distance between dance and words and helps in the understanding of psychologist about a patient’s state of mind.
- An Engineer, who loves to read, write and listen. She believes that words are the only medium to bring about a change for good.