Trauma-Informed Art Therapy to Treat Addiction

Posted on July 11th, 2016
Posted in Addiction, Articles

Trauma lies at the core of many addictions. People who experience abuse, neglect or other forms of trauma are at higher risk for alcoholism and drug addiction, anxiety disorders, depression and suicide. For example, studies have found:

  • 24% of male and 33% of female alcoholics have reported being physically abused, compared to 8% of the general population.
  • 12% of male and 49% of female alcoholics have reported being sexually abused, compared to 6% of the general population.
  • Children with four or more adverse childhood experiences are five times more likely to become alcoholic.

When trauma happens early in life, before children have a frame of reference, it can be particularly challenging to put the experiences in context and make sense of them through talk therapy. Some things are too tough to put into words. That’s where trauma-informed art therapy comes in.

What Is Trauma-Informed Art Therapy?

Trauma-informed expressive art therapy is a safe, comfortable approach that acts as a bridge between sensory memories held in the body and verbally telling one’s story. It allows people to begin addressing trauma in the same deeply emotional and sensory ways they experienced it, until they’re ready to process their experiences and express themselves in new ways. Through art therapy, people are able to identify, stabilize and regulate their responses to earlier traumatic experiences so they can move into the work of trauma recovery. Art therapy is often used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy and trauma-focused approaches like EMDR and Somatic Experiencing.

According to pioneer and author Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, art therapy is calming for the traumatized, hyper-alert lower parts of the brain. When the “fight or flight” responses return to a manageable level, the brain’s higher cognitive functions can take over. In this way, art becomes a medium for developing a sense of safety, reconnecting mind and body, and building resilience.

Trauma-informed art therapy can be effective with traumatized children, adolescents and adults. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies issued a statement in support of art therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), noting the potential for art therapy to help change the way the brain processes traumatic memories.

Although it shows great promise, Frank Florence, LPC, LCADC, a senior therapist at Park Bench drug rehab and a board certified and registered art therapist, believes art therapy is underutilized in trauma treatment. He is a major proponent of art therapy to treat trauma and addiction. “It’s hard for people who have suffered trauma to find the words to describe what happened to them or how they feel,” he explains. “There are important grounding skills built into the art-making process as well as opportunities to develop trust, safety and self-compassion without saying a word.”

How It Works: Art Therapy Meets Trauma and Addiction Recovery

At Park Bench, each art therapy group is different from the last because Florence designs every group around the current clients’ needs. One of Florence’s clients, who had struggled with repeat, complex trauma since age 2 and couldn’t begin to verbalize her experiences and feelings, made significant strides through art therapy. She was able to gain insights by making a visual timeline of her life. When reflecting on her finished work, she cried at the realization that she didn’t want to die without having had a single happy moment in her life.

She also was able to express herself by creating a visual representation using the metaphor of a tornado, which symbolized chaos and picking up the wreckage of her life. Along with a small group of other women, she walked through the visuals the group created, tearing up tissue paper that represented their traumatic experiences as they went. They also collaborated to make a mural that represented safety and trust. “Art is a way to talk about difficult experiences and feelings without actually talking about it, and get support without asking for it,” says Florence.

Clients may also have the opportunity to create a visual journal while in treatment at Park Bench. Using a hardcover textbook, Florence invites clients to write, draw, paint, rip or burn pages — whatever helps them process the feelings that can be so hard to talk about.

Create, Destroy, Transform

Florence uses a variety of art forms in his work. And since trauma is stored in the body, clients can often be found moving around and using their senses, rather than sitting still. In one group, clients use wet clay and slam it down on the floor. “It’s a visceral experience that helps clients connect their kinesthetic response with their emotional response,” says Florence.

Afterward, clients take the crumbled clay and make something beautiful out of the wreckage. This “create-destroy-transform” concept is revisited in other art media throughout a client’s stay in treatment so they can see the incredible possibilities that lie ahead despite a past filled with pain and trauma.

By Meghan Vivo

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