Art Therapy

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An example of art therapy when the prefrontal cortex is functioning

When a person experiences trauma, the brain may shut down the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher functioning such as language and reasoning. The brain then uses its basic brain, which is where the limbic system is located. The limbic system is responsible for, amongst many other things, the storing of memory and emotion. It stores memory in fragments, so anything from a smell or a sound can trigger memory of the trauma. Because the brain views the trigger of a traumatic memory as a threat, it shuts down higher functioning and once again, the brain is storing the trigger as trauma.

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An example of art therapy during basic brain functioning (during a trauma response)

When I process trauma with clients, I find that the means of processing largely depends on where they are at in their own journey. For instance, if they can recall the trauma without their brain shutting down, we can process the trauma using language. If they are highly sensitive and begin shutting down when they are triggered, at times they can write, but it may come out in rudimentary words like “scared” and “help.” Their handwriting is often basic as well. However, if I provide the same clients with colored pencils and a blank paper, they can draw but in much the same form that a child would- with stick figures, and coloring very hard when very stressed. If they are willing, they can begin to process the memory through these drawings. If they are very creative people, however, they will attempt to shut this process down. This is because, I have noticed, when I hand creative people art supplies, they feel the need to perfect the art. While art therapy is useful for very artistic people, this is not usually what I use art therapy for in either my personal (I am not artistically inclined) or professional life. I use it as a means of communication and emotion regulation during a strong trauma response.

Ideas for art therapy:

Colors, how hard the colors are applied, objects, size of objects, objects in relation to one another, and placement of art onto the paper are all symbolic. The more a person is able to take these things into account, the greater they will be able to communicate through art. Keep in mind that conscious symbolism requires higher brain functioning. However, the unconscious brain often uses the same symbolism in art therapy; this is the means therapists use to interpret client art… particularly when treating a child.

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