Healing Through Art Therapy

art is healing

Art doesn’t need to be for show. In fact, oftentimes artists are creating for themselves. Others appreciating their artwork is a bonus. Plus, research reveals that utilizing art therapy for healing can prove to be a helpful tool for trauma survivors.

Several months ago, I had the idea to attack a personal trauma of mine by drawing the way I felt about a particular situation. While drawing, coloring, and labeling my art, I found myself coming to a calm conclusion about various aspects of the situation. The next day, I was faced with a high-intensity situation related to the one I’d drawn about. It was comforting to simply grab the piece of art I’d completed to reflect on the emotions I’d processed.

The Science of Art Therapy

Artistic expression can scientifically calm the storm in the mind to better reflect and process a painful situation. Encouraging the brain to access a “flow state,” better known as “getting in the zone,” according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Art therapy can be a fantastic tool for survivors of domestic violence. Regardless of whether or not someone considers themselves creative or artistic. 

“Art therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.” 

The American Art Therapy Association

Earlier this year, Very Well Mind pointed out that while artistic expression, in general, can be beneficial, art therapy specifically asks clients to focus inward on their experiences. They stated, “in creating art, people are able to focus on their own perceptions, imagination, and feelings. Clients are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world.”

Art and Trauma

The Hotline stated that recent research reveals that traumatic memories are stored on the right side of the brain. These memories are “non-verbal” (sights, sounds, and smells) whereas memories stored on the left side of the brain are “verbal.” 

According to The Hotline, “this means that commonly recommended self-care activities like journaling, talking to a friend, or even traditional talk therapy might not be the most effective strategies for working through [traumatic] memories and the emotional and physical reactions attached to them.” The article explains how artistic expression can tap into the right side of the brain, where traumatic memories are stored. Which encourages a person to enter the previously mentioned “flow state” where intrusive thoughts stay at bay.

Interestingly, one way to access dopamine, a chemical in our brain related to reward and pleasure, is through a repetitive action. “Engaging in creative pursuits regularly can help train your brain to produce more of these feel-good chemicals that can improve your mood over time,” said The Hotline. Artistic expressions tend to provide a positive result. Some examples include, creating a brightly colored pot you can display in your home, singing a note you have been practicing, or holding a yoga pose. For me, I created a tangible piece of art that gave me the satisfaction of drawing something that turned out better than I expected, as well as something I could reflect back on whenever I needed to.

Art and Survivors

The connections that domestic violence survivors can create with each other is another vital aspect of art therapy. Art, in general, is somehow both an easy yet personal way to connect with others. Expressing past trauma, hardship or painful emotions is sometimes less uncomfortable to do when done through artistic expression. The feeling that music can express emotions pretty universal, and applicable here.

Chanel Miller, who was known as the Emily Doe victim during the Brock Turner case, published a memoir in 2019 titled Know My Name. In her memoir, she spoke of attending an art program the summer after her assault. Performing in a comedic stand-up production, as well as attending a workshop for survivors. She shared with The New York Times, “Drawing was a way for me to see that I was still there.”

In an article published by VAWnet, the writer said of a domestic violence survivor writing workshop they used to conduct, “As we worked together to find meaning in poetry and shared our vulnerabilities when reading our own writings aloud, we built community.” 

Finding community through art can provide survivors of domestic violence with a sense of safety and a form of self-care. 

The path of healing can be accessed by getting out your colored pencils, paints, or ballroom Youtube video and seeing how far it takes you.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our support line advocates at 855-287-1777.

Processing Grief

processing grief

Loss of any kind is a part of this world. It’s something we, unfortunately, have to learn to cope with. How we process this loss is also a part of this world. How can process grief in a healthy way? What can we do to cope with loss in our lives? What if you lost someone dear to you because of domestic violence? How do you process that loss?

Kirsten Belaire, Director of Behavioral Health at Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center stated, “Everyone is unique and so is their grief.” There are natural responses to trauma, grief, and loss, the recovery process, and functions of the brain.

Types of Loss

There are so many different types of loss – from losing a loved one to an illness to mourning the loss of a relationship, and even to a sudden loss of a loved one (including a domestic violence situation). This is not to say that any one loss is more significant than another. It also doesn’t make it easier. We all deal with loss differently and we will each process the grief differently.

Belaire‘s goal is to lead workshop attendees to an understanding that processing grief in a healthy way is to allow “the process, not dampening or shutting off the process (like coping with substances or ignoring feelings), and sharing your story/process.”

How Do You Process Loss?

I lost one of my best friends suddenly in April 2020. It was such a shock to the system that it literally brought me to my knees. How do you process such a sudden loss? I couldn’t make sense of it. I felt lost.

According to Merriam-Webster, grief is defined as “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.” Often, those in bereavement find great difficulty in processing such an extreme and intense emotion.

In her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross outlined the five stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

There is no right way to grieve, and the stages don’t “go in order” either. These stages are not linear – you will bounce between stages and maybe back to a stage you were in already. Since my friend’s death in April 2020, I have been bouncing between the anger, depression, and acceptance stages. I find myself wanting to be angry at how and why she died. Then depression sets in that my friend of 19 years is gone. Acceptance finds its way into my heart. But again, so does anger.

What does grieving look like? Well, it varies from person to person. What works for one, may not work for another. It typically manifests itself physically, emotionally, and psychologically, according to Mental Health America. “For instance, crying is a physical expression, while depression is a psychological expression,” stated the site.

Processing Grief in a Healthy Way 

NPR lists several fantastic ways to process grief in a healthy way. My two favorites are “be with your grief” and “grief needs expression.” Being with your grief does not mean to let it consume and overwhelm you. It simply means to acknowledge it and allowing the messiness in. Denying it doesn’t help either. Often, people will push the grief away and keep busy with work, school, or other things. That does us no good and in the end, those emotions can come back tenfold. Sit with your grief and recognize the messy emotions that come with it.

The other thing NPR lists that I have used to help me process and cope in a healthy way is expressing my grief. We are expressive creatures and in that, we need to find ways to express all of our emotions, including grief. If you are an artsy person, maybe you typically turn to painting, drawing, or sculpting. You may also find that keeping a journal will help you release your grief. Sometimes, shared grief can be a big help too. Perhaps find another trusted friend or support group that you can lean on. Those who know what you are going through can be an incredibly positive experience and help bring you peace.

Don’t Do It Alone

If you are struggling to process the grief you are experiencing, Belaire’s advice is simple but important. “Don’t feel you have to do it alone. Talk with someone who is familiar with grief (like a counselor, group member, or peer). In other words, someone who will not shut you down or make you feel like you’re failing. Remember, the grief process/healing is often painful and not always the ‘prettiest.’ It’s okay to be messy in moderation. If life becomes unmanageable, or your/others safety is at risk, seek help.”

For more information on Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center, please visit their website.

If you are unsure of whom to talk to, several domestic violence organizations operate hotlines, including BTSADV (855-287-1777) and the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). You may also search domesticshelters.org for help in the US and Canada.

Turning Trauma Responses Into Strength

trauma response

You’re driving down the highway on your way home from work when suddenly, out of nowhere, you hear a loud screeching and see a car barreling towards you from two lanes over. Thoughts begin racing through your head but you feel frozen, unsure what to do. Right before they slam into the side of your car, you check your rearview mirror and, seeing no one behind you, you slam on your brakes with just enough time for the car to get in front of you. The threat has passed but you feel yourself breathing rapidly, your heart is about to pound out of your chest and your hands are trembling. You pull off at the next exit to give yourself time to calm down so you can safely finish your drive home. You experienced a trauma response.

Fight or Flight

Fight or flight is a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of mental fear, physical fear, and uncertainty on how to best respond. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands which release a large amount of adrenaline – resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate – often accompanied by foggy thoughts and trembling. Following the elimination of threat, the fight or flight reaction takes anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.

Trauma Response in Domestic Violence

In abusive relationships, it’s very common for victims of abuse to live in a state of fight or flight. While it may not be fully elevated at all times, individuals in this position have been conditioned to remain fearful and unsure of what is going to come next. Due to living in a state of threat, it’s often not possible for victims of abuse to work through their emotions, feelings, and events until they have left the abusive situation/ relationship. This can make leaving even more difficult. 

After leaving an abusive relationship, the emotional and mental effects are extremely likely to linger. Again, due to being in a state of fight or flight, someone is not able to process emotions until the direct threat is eliminated. According to Love is Respect, after leaving an abusive relationship, victims are likely to experience any of the following:

  • Depression,
  • Guilt,
  • Anger,
  • PTSD,
  • Anxiety,
  • Trouble sleeping,
  • Being easily frightened,
  • Avoidance of triggers.

Turn Trauma Response Into Strength

While there isn’t a definitive healing process that works for everyone, it can be reassuring to know that many people have similar emotional experiences after leaving abusive relationships. Due to the conflicting feelings that are likely to follow leaving, it’s extremely important to seek out support in the form of therapy, support groups, and self-help activities. The first few months will not be easy but in the long run, you are saving yourself. It’s important to turn these responses to trauma into strengths. 

You’ve Been Through A Lot

For starters, your body is having such an extreme response because of all that you’ve been through. That alone should be enough to show you your worth and allow you to realize how strong you are to leave a situation that could cause such a strong physiological and subconscious response. Your body is proving to you that anyone who told you’re crazy, or that it’s “not that bad” was wrong. The body doesn’t have strong responses unless provoked.

It’s Okay to Grieve

Secondly, use these struggles as a time to heal and refind yourself. It’s okay to grieve. It’s natural to feel conflicted and to question if you’re making the right decision, but it’s important to remember that you’ve been conditioned to second guess yourself. When you’re questioning your decisions, stand firm in them, each time you stop those doubting thoughts in your head you will recondition your brain to trust your intuition.

Reconnect with Your Previous Life

Lastly, turn these responses into strengths by reconnecting with your life before your relationship. Did you enjoy coloring? Spending time with friends? Going out to eat? You might feel emotionally closed off, depressed, anxious, or apprehensive, that is okay. Turn that into a strength. Prove to yourself that you can return to normalcy. You can do this by setting a goal with yourself. Start out small, but don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It can help to ask yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?” and only use logical responses in determining the risk. Don’t let your fear outweigh the positives. You’re going to want to talk yourself out of it, but trust in yourself and recreate the amazing life you deserve. 


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