Can art really heal trauma?
(peer-reviewed by Isil Bastug)
3 August 2023
In a small city surrounded by the Japanese Alps lies the Matsumoto Art Museum. What many visitors perceive as a beautiful surrounding landscape was a cage to the artist featured in the museum. Kusama was born in Matsumoto, in 1929 and only dreamed of crossing the mountains to escape her hometown. While growing up, she was physically and emotionally abused by her mother and consequently suffered from hallucinations. To flee from her family and her injured mind before having the means to travel, she began to paint. Art became her rescue ship or as she puts it: ‘I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.’ Today, Kusama is a world-famous artist who inspires people around the world and across many different cultures as a person and through her work.
Up to 80% of people encounter severe adverse events in their lives (De Vries & Olff, 2009). Events with a lasting negative effect on the self can be referred to as traumas (Shapiro 2002). Trauma is often reduced to strongly abusive and life-threatening incidents (American Psychiatry Association, 2013) such as in the case of Kusama. However, evidence suggests that seemingly insignificant situations such as being rejected or humiliated as a child can also have lasting negative consequences on an individual (Shapiro, 2002). Memories are our frame of reference and shape our perception of the world. To avoid the dark imprints of traumatic memories on the perception of life, it is important to release these destructive memories. But how? Is art a universal tool to release traumatic stress or are the benefits reserved to Kusama and the few of us that dare to call themselves artists? In this article, we will examine how we store traumatic events and if art is an effective way to release them.
Our life is stored in our memory. It is supposed that we have different types of memory systems for different kinds of information. For example, autobiographical and factional information (like a memory of you riding a bike for the first time or remembering when the bike was invented) is consciously stored in the explicit memory, while the implicit memory (knowing how to bike) unconsciously stores emotions and sensations. Traumatic events are suggested to be encoded by our implicit memory (Tripp, 2007). The implicit memory system is closely tied to the body’s sensory experiences and movements and the memories it encodes are often associated with physiological responses. Thus implicit memory and consequently traumatic events are not only stored in our minds but are also held in the body (Rothschild, 2000). The trauma can be held in the body in the form of a physical reaction to trauma triggers (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating, trembling) but also in the form of an ongoing change in physicality including constriction, or a collapsed posture. Because implicit memory is encoded unconsciously, traumatic events can cause physical changes and can give birth to new behavioural patterns without the attained individual being aware of them.
It is important to release traumatic stress because not only does unresolved traumatic stress stain the lens through which an individual lives, but it can also lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with a lifelong prevalence in some cases (De Vries & Olff, 2009). PTSD is characterized by recurrent, intrusive memories of the traumatic event which are uncontrollably triggered by a variety of trauma-related cues and often lead to extreme distress in the traumatized individual. Furthermore, the flashbacks are often disconnected from explicit memory which causes the individual to lose their sense of orientation and the capacity to distinguish the memory from real-life perceptions which makes the memory seem even more vivid. The uncontrolled flashbacks thus often strongly interfere with the normal functioning of daily life. It is therefore important to find ways to let go of traumatic memory.
However, for some individuals talking therapies might not be efficient in releasing traumatic stress. Traumatized individuals often face an impossibility to speak and find themselves in a state of ‘speechless terror’ when trying to explain traumatic sensations (van der Kolk, 1994). A neuro-imaging study showed that when re-experiencing trauma, the left frontal area of the cortex, especially the Broca’s area (an area strongly involved in speech) shuts down while the right hemisphere, especially the amygdala (an area associated with emotions) is highly activated (Rauch et al, 1996). Thus, therapy methods overcoming the limitations of spoken therapy could perhaps be helpful to some individuals to release their traumatic stress.
Kusama among many other artists recognized art as a method to access subconscious and psychosomatic (relating to body and mind) traumatic memories and consequently cope with them. She states, ‘My work is based on developing my psychological problems into art.’ and ‘My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.’
Today, the idea of using art to overcome trauma has also been taken up by art therapy methods. Art therapy differs from other therapy forms due to the incorporation of nonverbal elements - the use of art means including drawing, painting, collage, and sculpting to process traumatic experiences. Therapeutic art interventions provide the possibility to reach, express and later comment on feelings, and memories related to the traumatic event. Art enables the individual to externalize the memories and emotionally disengage from them. This allows the reconstruction of what happened without having to re-experience the traumatic event (Smeijsters 2008). Reconstructing the lived situations as an observer rather than an actor changes the experiential reality of the situation and permits the individual to move from a sense of victimhood to a sense of personal agency (Bruner, 1990). These ideas are further supported by several studies showing that art therapy interventions are effective in reducing trauma symptom severity and PTSD in traumatized adults. Art therapy seems to decrease re-experience of the traumatic event, and strong uncontrolled emotional arousal as a reaction to trauma triggering-cues (Baker et al, 2006).
These findings and the life experiences of several artists suggest that art could help release traumatic stress. Picasso's famous words, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life," and Adler's reflection "Life beats down and crushes the soul, art reminds you that you have one," resonate with above discussed scientific findings, supporting the therapeutic power of art.
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