The impact of trauma requires approaches that address the sensory aspects many survivors report (Machiodi, 2020). Expressive arts therapy uses art, music, dance/movement, dramatic enactment, creative writing and imaginative play to facilitate mainly nonverbal self-expression of feelings and perceptions. These are action-oriented approaches and tap into implicit, embodied experiences of trauma that often cannot be expressed verbally.
Humans have a long history of using the arts for ‘self-expression, self-regulation, reparation and commemoration’ and the arts were part of the earliest healing practices. This involved image-making, ritual, music, storytelling, imaginative play and re-enactment, all of which have helped humans cope with loss and disaster and as a form of preventative and reparative treatment. Bruce Perry notes the most powerful evidence for best practice comes from disparate cultures over thousands of generations that all converge on ‘rhythm, touch, storytelling and reconnection to community’ as the core elements of coping and healing. The arts have an on-going role in mediating psychological deficits, restoring equilibrium and integrating parts of the self that cannot be articulated. Long before the ‘talking cure’ of psychotherapy humans turned to the arts as a way to transform difficulty and deal with crisis, tragedy and loss. As a species we have been using the ‘healing rhythms and synchrony’ of the arts to dissolve distress for thousands of years. This took the form not only of individual reparation but also through social engagement using connection and community as agents of healing.
Despite this expressive arts therapies have been left out of recognised psychotherapeutic approaches to trauma. This is partly down to the marginalisation of the arts in modern societies generally, as the appreciation of their impact on mental health and wellness is under-appreciated. Science is now providing evidence for what people have always known and is explaining why the arts may be ‘uniquely effective’ in treating trauma. The arts are used by indigenous peoples of the world to address individual and collective trauma. Historically, humans have used the arts in an integrative way through enactment, ceremony, performance and ritual. Machiodi notes that the synergy of the arts based on cultural traditions and trauma-informed practice is needed to address traumatic stress with children, families, groups and communities. Expressive arts involve the use of more than one art form and are being used in hospitals to humanise care through integration of the arts and psychotherapy. Shaun McNiff notes that when art and psychotherapy join their scope and depth is expanded and they are ‘tied to the continuities of humanity’s history of healing’. The combined use of the arts for health and well-being, including dealing with trauma, is part of humankind’s collective history and heritage. Expressive arts is not media-based as such, but sensory-based expression, aesthetics – beauty, rhythm, harmony, resonance, balance.
There are eight reasons for using the expressive arts in trauma interventions which include: Allowing the senses to tell the story; self-soothing; engaging the body; recovering self-efficacy; rescripting the trauma narrative; creating new meaning and restoring a sense of aliveness. The expressive arts predominantly access the right hemisphere and implicit memory where trauma is held and right-brain functions of sensory experience like images, sounds, touch and movement. Trauma is encoded as a sensory reality and therefore expression and processing of these implicit memories are important in trauma resolution. The core aim of expressive arts therapy is to help people find forms of expression that will be self-regulating and to communicate experiences in reparative ways.
Malchiodi, C. A. (2020). Trauma and expressive arts therapy: Brain, body, and imagination in the healing process. Guilford Publications.