Healing Through the Arts

By Dana, a Hotline Advocate

Here at The Hotline, we know the importance of a self-care routine as a means for coping with stress and dealing with the complicated emotional and physical responses that can arise from the trauma of abuse. An on-going commitment to self-care and personal wellness is an important part of recovery and healing, and many survivors face unique challenges in being able to create a self-care routine that works well for them.

We do know that survivors of abuse can experience long-terms changes to their mental and emotional health, even after leaving an abusive relationship. These changes may include anxiety, isolation/avoidance, and/or irritability; flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and/or nightmares; and guilt/shame, depression, and/or negative self-image. People who are dealing with symptoms like this are sometimes diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, it can be helpful to know that traumatic events affect people in all kinds of ways and there is nothing wrong with you if you find yourself struggling to heal from the impact of past abuse.

Recent research shows that traumatic memories are stored in the right back region of the brain, which is associated with non-verbal memories (sights, sounds, and smells associated with a past event), rather than the left front area of the brain, which is associated with verbal memories. 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 those memories and the emotional and physical reactions attached to them.

So, what is someone to do in that case? What could help where other strategies fail?

Art expression (in all its forms) activates the right brain because it incorporates your senses by providing tactile, kinesthetic, auditory, and/or visual information. This means that arts activities can tap into traumatic memories the way that other, less sensory activities cannot. There is evidence that engagement with artistic activities, either as an observer or as an initiator, can enhance your mood, emotions, and other psychological states, while reducing symptoms like stress and depression.

One possible way to benefit from the healing power of the arts is by participating in creative arts or expressive arts therapy. This can include art, music, dance/movement, drama, poetry, play, or sand tray therapy. Being able to create a visual representation of intense emotions or move your body in creative ways can help you express parts of the experience that may be difficult to put into words.

Creating art can also help you access a flow state where you are unaware of the passage of time and the outside world fades away; this state has been described as “being in the zone.” Spending time in this flow state can be beneficial as it is known to reduce the negative effects of repetitive or intrusive thoughts and it allows unconscious associations to emerge, which can help you make meaning out of your experiences.

While many survivors do find formal therapy to be very beneficial as they work towards healing from trauma, it is not necessary to participate in formal arts therapy to reap the benefits of creativity. Any repetitive action (sewing, gardening, yoga, drawing, etc.) releases dopamine, a chemical in our brains that is related to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. 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. Creative activities are helpful because they tend to culminate in a positive result – whether it’s something tangible like a painting, or the sense of pride that comes from finally mastering a new dance step. Participating in activities that allow you to see that you’re making progress can be especially healing when you’ve endured something that made you feel helpless in the past. The experience of making concrete progress can increase your self-esteem and reinforce healthy habits, helping you feel motivated to continue doing things that improve your mood and help you work through the trauma you’ve endured.

One of the most powerful things about using the arts to heal is that it can help you begin to tap back into your sense of self and purpose. If addressing larger life goals feels too overwhelming, meeting a creative goal can help you re-engage with your productivity in a way that’s enjoyable and will foster positive brain connections. Engaging in creative activities is a way to reclaim your autonomy and do something purely for yourself and for the enjoyment it brings.

Additionally, being creative can help you strengthen social connections. You might consider taking an arts class in your community and use the class as a chance to meet new people and create a support system. This also could be an opportunity to get positive feedback from the other group members, which can be a stepping stone to overcoming feelings of self-doubt or shame about your creativity. Many creative arts or expressive arts therapists also offer group therapy, which can provide a safer space to connect with others who can more deeply understand those feelings of grief, anger, and helplessness, and can support the journey towards healing.

Research on post-traumatic stress highlights a benefit of healing from trauma, which has been named post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth refers to the resiliency that emerges after experiencing intense stress, including stronger interpersonal relationships, identification of new possibilities, increased personal strength, enhanced spirituality, and greater life appreciation. Scientific American quotes research by Marie Forgeard which found that while unwanted, intrusive rumination about traumatic events leads to a decline in all five areas of growth, controlled and deliberate rumination leads to an increase in every area associated with post-traumatic growth. Creative expression is one way to harness the power of this deliberate rumination, contributing to future growth and healing.

In summary, creative expression can be one way for survivors to take back control of their life’s narrative, tap back into their strengths and skill sets, and create meaning from their life experiences. In this way, creativity can be as empowering as it is enjoyable, and can help survivors foster a new future filled with endless possibilities. If you are a survivor of intimate partner violence who is struggling to heal from past abuse, or if you need help creating a self-care plan that works for you, we are here to support you. Advocates are available 24/7 via phone (1-800-799-7233) and online chat.

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