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Trauma: Effects on the Brain and Body and Art Therapy as an Effective Treatment

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

What is trauma?

Trauma can be broadly defined as anything that overwhelms our ability to cope. Unbearable stress sends our physiology down the same route as if we were escaping a lion. Trauma can be a single event or a period of events: an accident, the sudden loss of a loved one, being attacked, or being abused. The term developmental trauma acknowledges that growing brains are more vulnerable. Early events leave deep imprints that increase the complexity of healing and finding safety. Many early defining events will never be brought into the light of conscious awareness but they shape us nevertheless. They often underlie how we respond in the present. Trauma shatters our world view: rules of fairness and justice no longer seem to apply.

Traumatic events and memories

Unprocessed traumatic memories are stored predominantly in the right hemisphere of the brain, where they lack narrative organization and cognitive perspective. In people with PTSD, these emotional memories are often overwhelming and can be so powerful that the person loses contact with present reality. When extreme trauma occurs in early childhood, there is an automatic shift from a learning brain, that is open and able to explore the environment, to a survival brain, focused on defending against potential danger and threat.

Cognitive functioning and the ability to evaluate or categorize experiences can be greatly impaired by traumatic stress. Trauma survivors are fundamentally stuck in defensive response patterns that are manifested in a variety of post-traumatic symptoms such as avoidance, numbing, dissociation, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, negative or distorted self-beliefs, and/or chronic states of dysregulation. These extreme behaviors may have been adapted during a post-traumatic event but are generally considered maladaptive in a present, non-threatening context.

Dissociation is the essence of trauma; after a traumatic event, people often drift in and out of dissociation. It is one of the most serious and long-lasting of all the symptoms of abuse. Dissociation is one of the biggest precursors to getting lost in trauma responses. The inability to feel the body and lack of connection to our internal experience often lead to pain and depression.

In fight or flight, resources such as oxygen, blood, and sugar are diverted to the big muscles and the brain. Primitive resources take over and flight or fight or dissociation can switch on extremely fast. Unless they are discharged, the brain can default to these life and death scenarios long after the danger has passed. A common response is contracting to make ourselves small, ultimately into an immobile, fetal position. We are left bracing ourselves against life, disconnected from our internal and external worlds. Shaking is something that has traditionally been seen as a symptom and as a pathological result of trauma. We shake because it is a natural mechanism in the body to optimize tension. Trauma survivors often state how they feel as if they are outside of their bodies.

Dissociation can also make us feel klutzy. It is hard to stay present and grounded. People can rely on thinking and function fairly well, but often report feeling cut-off, as if they were an observer. In trauma, the brain is acting to protect us as if the trauma is still happening right now and we are constantly unconsciously scanning the environment for threats. The aim is to slowly learn how to stay grounded in the face of intense sensations associated with our body’s fear responses expressed in the body.

Research in trauma recovery

The central message from trauma research is that humans are very resilient. We all have within us the ability to endure, recover, and learn from overwhelming events. We are wired to survive. We would not be here as a human species unless we had evolved ways of recovering. By paying attention to feelings in the body and learning to self-regulate, we can learn to reboot the brain. By learning to self-regulate we can gain mastery over the old primitive parts of the brain that are stuck in life and death scenarios. We are hard-wired for social engagement. Simply being with other people who are not scared will down-regulate our alarm systems.

Art Therapy to heal from trauma

In trauma treatment, bilateral stimulation appears to be an effective tool that can enhance communication across both left and right hemispheres of the brain, which can improve the integration between logical thought and expressive feeling. Somatically-informed bilateral art therapy engages both hemispheres of the brain and activates adaptive processing for the resolution of traumatic stress.

For healing to occur, traumatic memories need to be transformed, contextualized, and given meaning, but words alone may be inadequate for addressing the negative imprint of trauma that is lodged in the emotional right brain. Trauma may best be identified, desensitized, and resolved through art therapy combined with mindfulness practices that keep the mind, brain, and body fully engaged in the present rather than trapped in the traumatic past. Art therapy is highly effective due to its nonverbal nature and the ability of the art process to place you in the present moment. Because art-making engages both mind and body, an individual in art therapy can rapidly access implicitly stored traumatic memory and remain mindfully focused in the present. When survivors are asked to talk about trauma, they are often met with intense emotions and sensations that are hard to regulate.

Art therapy engages multiple senses and provides a unique vehicle for expression where words and language can fall short. Art therapy utilizes both hemispheres of the brain, pairing the unconscious, emotional right-brain sensations, with rational, verbal left-brain thought processes. Art-based interventions can facilitate connection to implicit, traumatic memory and create a bridge from unconscious states to conscious awareness. Art therapy is a dynamic, active, present-focused treatment that, in the company of the art therapist, can be experienced as both powerful and enjoyable.

Alessandra Macca is a Registered Mental Health Intern at Cypress Wellness Center. In her therapeutic work, she uses the art process as a unique vessel of expression. Approaching each session with kindness, curiosity, compassion, and playfulness; recognizing each client and their individual experiences. She specializes in trauma and PTSD, anxiety, and seeing children and adolescents.

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