Today we will be exploring how art therapy is affective at helping with processing trauma whether you have unresolved trauma or a diagnosis of PTSD. Art making and art therapy allow people to express themselves in new ways and find new meaning and possibility in the healing process. Check out these 4 ways that art therapy helps with trauma:


The process of creating art is very enjoyable because we are doing something that is new and pleasurable. Our brains enjoy and seek new situations because it creates novelty. When we experience a novel act, our brains store a new positive memory into our memory center which is in the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus stores our memories and the amygdala helps with emotional stimuli and strengthens our long term memories.

Trauma survivors can have difficulty with accessing positive emotions. So art therapy aids in giving a dose of dopamine since you are doing something  new and novel. Dopamine is the key to the reward center of the brain so then the person feels good and is able to find solutions to the problem or task at hand. When a person is able to create art work in a art therapy session and express themselves, it is a pleasurable activity; also they get to externalize their internal experience and gain a different perspective.

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” ~ Pablo Picasso


Trauma survivors generally have a hard time with their emotions, either being in avoidance of them or are being overwhelmed by them. When working with an art therapist, art can provide a place of containment for a challenging situation, place or memory. Then after exploring the piece, you can leave it at the therapist’s office so that you no long have to carry it with you in your mind. It lightens the load; it lessens the power of the memory and makes it more manageable. Each time we make something that haunts us outside of us we have opportunities to have a new experience. Through the process of externalization a person get to  see that it is actually not a part of us, just something that we rent space to and interact with inside of our mind.

“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut


Having PTSD, or PTS, or unresolved symptoms of trauma can be unpleasant and people may avoid interacting or experiencing them. But, in order to heal from a traumatic event, the way that the body and mind is holding the trauma must be explored, so that it can be expressed, released and externalized. This process allows the body to let go of the event that is frozen or trapped in the body. By focusing on the internal experience of the body, an individual can learn about when they are triggered and what the symptoms are that their body is having.  With my clients we frequently will externalize their body sensations with line, shape, color, and form into a empty body image, to help clients understand their experience. By learning about their symptoms and normalizing them, they can have a different experience with them.

Here are some common symptoms of trauma survivors:

  • Episodes or re-experiencing the event (including flashbacks)
  • Sleep disturbance and nightmares
  • Easily startled (being very jumpy)
  • Avoiding things, places, people or conversations that remind them of the event
  • Emotional numbing or shutting down
  • Irritability/Anger
  • Memory problems/amnesia
  • Anxiety/panic
  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
  • Guilt about being a survivor of an event
  • Depression with or without suicidal thoughts

“Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.” ~ Chuck Klosterman


Since trauma can be difficult and uncomfortable to talk about, the use of art work can be a way of a person expressing themselves non verbally. The therapist and client can talk about the use of color, line, shape, and form and how each of the objects interact with one another. When talking about art work, it is less threatening than focusing on self. The person can project onto the art and access the unconscious part of the brain to gain insight into their symptoms or whatever problem they maybe having. The use of coloring is also very helpful and effective for helping a person, regulate the body, slow down the breathing and calm the parasympathetic system (the fight, flight, or freeze response).

“I make art when I can’t gather the words to say.” ~ Nikki Rowe

How have you used art to express yourself? Comment below!

Celine Elise Alvarez, LMFT is an art therapist and a marriage and family therapist.  She believes in working holistically, and finding a client’s strengths to help them to thrive and make changes in their lives through inner growth work.  You can connect with her at Inner Growth Therapy.

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