Healing From PTSD: Art And Expression As A Treatment Modality

Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Traci Ball, LLC

Therapy is a powerful tool. Never have there been so many incredible healing modalities and mental health specialists available to help work through trauma, identify areas of need, and determine areas of weakness. Although family and friends are an integral part of keeping a healthy mind, they cannot be relied upon to provide the same consistent, detached perspective a therapist can offer. This is particularly important for people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

PTSD Can Feel Intense And Overwhelming
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How Does Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Work?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety or stress disorder derived from a traumatic event or a compounding series of traumas. Your brain processes trauma in unique ways. Not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop a trauma-based disorder, but there are some risk factors to consider when determining who is more likely to experience PTSD following trauma. These include a family history of PTSD, existing anxiety or depressive disorders, difficulties with interpersonal relationships, and little to no support in work, familial, or friendly relationships.

PTSD is an intense condition. The brain essentially forces itself to shut down instead of processing trauma. This means that a person detaches from the source of the trauma without having processed all that happened. Logically going through the events, emotionally tackling the source of trauma, or simply walking through and understanding the event does not take place. All of these are crucial to giving your mind the ability to heal from the effects of trauma. If PTSD is present, and these processes cannot happen, the trauma remains a stubborn sore in your memory and tries to push its way through to the forefront. Flashbacks, nightmares, fears, phobias, and even paranoia are common symptoms.

To continue to protect itself, your brain might encourage you to avoid certain things, or begin to withdraw. Being around people and viewing, hearing, or smelling things that are related to the trauma can bring it to mind. What began as a protective mechanism can become a hindrance to health.

Signs and Symptoms Of PTSD

There are a few core symptoms of PTSD, including avoidant behavior, personality changes, and hyperarousal. Avoidant behavior is characterized by feeling (or indulging) overwhelming impulses to avoid anything or anyone capable of triggering a memory of the trauma or event. For instance, if you experienced a torrent of emotional abuse just outside of a coffee shop, you might begin to avoid coffee shops or anything that smells like coffee. If you were in a car accident, you might begin avoiding driving or riding in cars, buses, opting instead to walk. Avoidant behavior does not always completely derail your life, but these behaviors can escalate and cause significant impairments.

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Personality changes common to PTSD include increased anger and irritability, withdrawal, and paranoia. Again, these symptoms might not come out in every waking moment, but they may grow increasingly problematic as your condition progresses. Personality changes can also be a detriment to your daily life. Periods of withdrawal, anger, irritability, and paranoia can interfere with the ability to work, attend school, or even tend to your relationships. These can lead to further isolation and alienation.

Another symptom of PTSD is persistent arousal or hyperarousal. A state of hyperarousal is characterized by constantly feeling "on edge," anxious, or unsure of yourself. People can begin to worry about every possible outcome on any given day, can struggle to leave the house for fear of danger or injury (even when none are immediately present), and may be extremely jumpy and sensitive to stimuli. Light sensitivity, auditory sensitivity, and sensitivity to touch are just a few signs of hyperarousal.

Standard PTSD Treatment

In standard PTSD treatment, talk therapy is likely to be the most commonly encouraged modality. Talk therapy allows patients and doctors to determine exactly what the root trauma is while creating a treatment plan to ease PTSD symptoms. PTSD treatment can take as little as 12-18 weeks but may require a much more significant time frame, particularly if the effects of PTSD have infiltrated most aspects of your life.

PTSD Can Feel Intense And Overwhelming
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PTSD can be difficult to treat because not all causes are immediately evident. While a combat veteran will likely have little difficulty identifying horrors intense enough to trigger PTSD, someone whose PTSD has come on the heels of ongoing emotional abuse, divorce, or witnessing a car accident might not be able to quickly and easily identify the source of their trauma. In these cases, a large portion of talk therapy is spent tracing feelings, triggers, and fears to determine what has given birth to PTSD.

Treatment for PTSD can also have concurrent lifestyle suggestions, supplement recommendations, and pharmaceutical interventions. Common lifestyle changes include eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Supplements that can help may include melatonin or other sleep-encouraging hormones. Pharmaceutical interventions might be used to treat common co-morbid conditions, such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

Art and PTSD

Art has a relatively long-standing relationship with PTSD. Although it has not always been used as a means of therapeutic expression, there are historical examples of it acting as an outlet for grief, fear, or other difficult-to-process emotions. Some of the world's most incredible works of art have been created by men and women with histories of violence, turmoil, or frustration. Art can be a wonderful tool and outlet for those working through the trauma at the core of PTSD.

Art may be used for PTSD treatment in several different ways. Art therapy is a therapeutic intervention that encourages patients and doctors to come together to examine artwork and explore what is happening in the body and mind through artistic expression. In art therapy sessions, a therapist might ask a client to draw or sketch while reliving an experience or might remain largely silent as images are created to describe a current state of mind. Art therapists are trained to not only encourage artistic expression in people who might otherwise be reticent, but they are also trained in recognizing patterns of human behavior exemplified in the artwork.

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Art may also be used as a source of personal relief when dealing with PTSD. While it is certainly a helpful therapy modality, art does not have to be created under the eye of a certified art therapist to aid in the healing process. Simply getting the jumble of thoughts and feelings within onto paper or canvas can be immensely helpful and cathartic. Art does not have to follow any linear progression. It is not graded or evaluated and does not have a standard to meet. Instead, people with PTSD can utilize a hand, a brush, or a pencil and allow the pain they are experiencing to come out. This process facilitates exiting the troubled waters of their minds.

Healing PTSD Through Expression

Expressing oneself is one of the most important aspects of treating PTSD. One of the major problems is that PTSD promotes the impulse to withdraw, hide, and tamp down memories, instead of allowing those memories to be addressed. Visual art is not the only means of expression in PTSD patients. Poetry, music, and dance can also work well to express the pain, fear, and trauma of PTSD. Movement therapy is also a therapy field, as is music therapy. Poetry can be created and discussed with mental health practitioners. The words within poetry might offer insight into unique triggers and fears.

Ultimately, the goal of all art therapy modalities is personal expression. When the body and brain are given the freedom to express the terror, confusion, and grief so common to traumatic events, patients can release some of the power of PTSD. Although the basic function of the initial stages of PTSD is self-protection, unexpressed wounds and fears can fester while also delaying healing.

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Contacting a therapist is one of the first steps toward healing. While PTSD might not seem dangerous or extremely problematic, it is an escalating condition that can progressively undermine attempts to lead a healthy and fulfilling life. With the help of a therapist, steps can be taken toward a healthier and brighter future.

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