You Can’t Think Your Way Out Of Trauma – But Art Therapy Can Help

Artist doing design of fashion footwear model. Young man makes fashion sketch on his workplace with artistic tools around

By Chelsea Cristene
October 13, 2017

“The artistic process gives you a pause to start thinking about how you should be living your life now.”

Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

As a graduate student in a Virginia Woolf seminar, I watched the handful of veterans in the class absorb Septimus Warren Smith with a special recognition, a solemn gratitude that an author living nearly a century prior could so eloquently capture the pain they were battling today. As an instructor a few years later, I watched my classrooms fill with Iraq War veterans and carefully selected literature that they could identify with and channel their own experiences into. I taught the jingoistic World War I poems of Jesse Pope alongside the raw sensory accounts of soldiers Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, a “before” and “after” pairing that prompted me to step back while the class veterans spoke to what I could not. I assigned stories from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and an accompanying expository writing exercise, which one vet later noted in his student evaluation had allowed him to get things off his chest that he was never able to before.

The world has raised its whip, Virginia Woolf wrote. Where will it descend? That’s what PTSD is like. A band of tension stretching, stretching, waiting for a release that doesn’t come. A quiet mourning of the loss of a former life, be it the comradery of a troop or the joy of sex before an assault. Special accommodations, whispered in the minutes before class starts: I need to sit in the back row, in this chair. I get rattled if I sense someone behind me that I can’t see.

One of the chief frustrations that PTSD sufferers experience is an inability to rationally think their way out of their symptoms, the way we would solve a predicament at the office or a math problem on a sheet of homework. We know that it’s impossible to think ourselves out of having a broken arm or high blood pressure. But because mental illness is a matter of the mind, sufferers often beat themselves up over not simply willing themselves to stop feeling how they feel.

This difficulty, according to longtime trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, occurs because trauma does not reside in the more complex “thinking” parts of the brain. “The amygdala…which is the smoke detector, alarm bell system of the brain — that’s where the trauma lands, and trauma makes that part of the brain hypersensitive or renders it totally insensitive,” van der Kolk explains. Trauma impacts the part of the brain responsible for emotion regulation and basic functions, which is why so many diagnosed with PTSD have trouble sleeping, eating, and managing emotional responses.

I was fortunate enough to hear a talk given by Dr. van der Kolk at a PTSD research summit last month. The Military Healing Arts Network, a project of the National Endowment for the Arts, hosted the Creative Forces Clinical Research Summit in Washington, D.C., to share information on how to integrate the arts into PTSD treatment. There are currently 11 clinical sites across the country that house the Creative Forces four-week program, which combines music therapy, art therapy, dance and movement therapy, and expressive writing exercises into an interdisciplinary experience for patients.

Each kind of art benefits patients in different ways. Dance and movement therapy helps PTSD sufferers reconnect with their bodies after experiencing physical trauma or withdrawing away from a fear: sexual abuse survivors in particular have long relied on dance therapy to reclaim their bodily autonomy. Expressive writing helps patients better understand and verbalize their own trauma, leading to better communication with doctors as well as friends and family. Art therapy, which involves projects like the creation of masks at the Walter Reed site, allows patients to experiment with a multitude of mediums while creating something with their hands. The masks are then analyzed by staff for common themes and connection to symptoms.

The data shared at the research summit on creative arts therapy was overwhelmingly positive. Art therapy, in conjunction with more traditional methods like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), was found to be more effective in reducing symptoms like anxiety and depression than CBT alone. Other positive changes in patients included improvement in long-term and short-term memory, reduced nightmares, and deeper emotional insight. Retired Marine and Creative Forces patient Chris Stowe told The New York Times that he was “kind of lost” until engaging with painting and instrumental music through the program, while former Navy SEAL Rusty Noesner noted that “the artistic process gives you a pause to start thinking about how you should be living your life now.”

The arts integration movement is growing, and with good reason. Performing arts, visual arts, and creative writing in the classroom are connected to improved content retention, higher test scores, and increased capacity for empathy. But perhaps more crucially, the arts can assist in alleviating physical and mental stress in adults. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When we’re feeling down or upset, our self-care often involves the arts. We release ourselves from the worries of the day, giving ourselves permission to escape through a book, a movie, a night at the comedy club or a song that makes us ugly-cry.

We should give trauma survivors permission to do the same.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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Livre – Introduction aux psychothérapies humanistes

Introduction aux psychothérapies humanistes
Alfonso Santarpia
Date de parution : 24/08/2016
Editeur : Dunod
Collection : Psycho sup
ISBN : 978-2-10-074229-5
EAN : 9782100742295
Format : Grand Format
Présentation : Broché
Nb. de pages : 238 pages
Poids : 0.406 Kg
Dimensions : 15,6 cm × 24,0 cm × 1,3 cm

Aujourd’hui, les approches humanistes apparaissent assez mal définies en France. Le projet de ce livre consiste donc à en expliciter les principes philosophiques fondateurs et les techniques thérapeutiques. Organisé en sept chapitres, il présente les origines de la psychothérapie humaniste ; le débat interne à la psychothérapie humaniste qui s’établit entre deux visions contradictoires de l’humain : l’une positive et l’autre, tragique/existentielle ; les apports des recherches sur la « cognition incarnée » (embodied cognition) dans des domaines allant de la motricité à l’émotion ; les techniques à médiation corporelle dites « internes » (grounding, suspension du visuel, etc.) et « externes » (EMDR, cohérence cardiaque, etc.) ; les approches centrées sur les émotions : Gestalt-thérapie, Emotion-Focused Therapy, Focusing ; les états de conscience modifiés (hypnose, expérience de mort imminente, etc.) et les concepts de la psychothérapie transpersonnelle ; une réflexion clinique centrée sur les processus et les formes de la narrativité dans une philosophie socioconstructiviste.

Biographie d’Alfonso Santarpia
ALFONSO SANTARPIA Maître de conférences en psychologie clinique et psychopathologie à l’université d’Aix-Marseille. Il est responsable de l’Unité d’Enseignement « Psychothérapies Humanistes ». Il est aussi psychologue clinicien et psychothérapeute d’orientation humaniste existentielle.

Le style du thérapeute et sa capacité d’être en contact avec les potentialités créatives du patient sont les conditions nécessaires d’un parcours en psychothérapie qui améliore la qualité de vie de l’être en souffrance. La présence chaleureuse du thérapeute et sa flexibilité interprétative devant la nudité ou l’invincibilité de nos souffrances semblent aujourd’hui les éléments essentiels d’une rencontre significative et efficiente. Une vaste littérature s’oriente vers ces conclusions et définit les attitudes d’une style thérapeutique facilitant l’émergence d’un dialogue transformatif (Leconte et al, 2004, p.89) :
• la sensibilité aux caractéristiques du patient ;
• la flexibilité dans le choix des interventions ;
• la compétence d’intervenir sans induire un processus de résistance ;
• la finesse de savoir suivre les styles d’adaptation du patient ;
• l’habilité à construire une alliance thérapeutique ;
• la sensibilité affective propre à favoriser un attachement sécurisant :
• la capacité à réguler des relations émotionnellement intenses et variables comportant des tensions et des ruptures ;
• la réceptivité favorisant non seulement des réponses emphatiques, mais encore des réponses d’acceptation chaleureuse authentique ;
• la maîtrise et l’application pertinente de techniques adaptées aux besoins du patient.

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