Art therapy as a processing tool

I’ve long been a proponent of art as therapy, but I had not yet experienced such a drastic shift in symptoms as I did Wednesday evening.

I had been struggling with flashbacks since last Thursday’s doctor’s appointment. It was made worse by the incident that came up Sunday evening. The image and feelings just kept repeating and intensifying unless I was bombarding myself with sensory input.

I told Dr. C as much when I went in for that extra session Wednesday evening. When she asked if I wanted to talk about it, all I could do was nod. She then suggested doing some art around it. I nodded harder to that. I figured it was easier than speaking at the moment.

We moved to the floor and got to work. She had me represent the “memory” as best I could (right side), and had me add the emotions to it also (left side). She then asked me what I wanted to change about the image to help make it feel safer. Did I want to add something between the image of the memory and the emotion? Was there something protective I could incorporate into it to help it feel better?

I admit I was quite stumped.

She started listing off suggestions, then dug through her bag of supplies for more ideas. She pulled out some felt, and offered that up. originally we were thinking of using it as a blanket or towel around the kid, but the color I happened to pick out (red, unusual for me b/c there was also blue there & I normally gravitate to blue) was already cut into a heart shape. As she realized it was a heart, she mentioned that it would be perfect. We re-adjusted the concept of a blanket/towel to using the heart instead. She cut it down to fit on the page, then we set about trying to figure out how to attach it – glue doesn’t work too well on felt. Dr. C happened to have a needle and thread, so she suggested sewing it on.

We ended up with this:

wpid-2015-10-30-11.27.08.jpg.jpg

Yesterday, when describing the piece in group, I said that the heart was covering up the unpleasant image. Dr. C commented that it was an interesting choice of words, since it was meant as a protective measure more than a way to hide it from view… We didn’t delve further into it, but I’m sure there will be a conversation around it during Monday’s session. Either way (hiding from awareness or protecting from it), doing that project helped lessen the flashbacks. They are relatively minor intrusions in my day now, and it’s not nearly as disturbing as it had been all week.

I’ve known expression through art can help change the impact of the trauma for a while. I have even used the technique of changing an expressive piece to help change the experience of whatever it was expressing, but it’s never been such an immediate and noticeable change. It’s always just crept up on me. I would realize the change a few hours or days later. This time, doing it in session with Dr C, it was a huge difference just in the hour and a half we spent on the piece. I went in to her office feeling raw, triggered, and spent, but left feeling lighter and able to smile. It felt a lot like the change in symptoms after an EMDR session. I think part of the relief came from sharing not only the incident, but also the experience of changing it. As I mentioned before, I have tried changing the art to change the thoughts around what it expresses, but it felt more “healing” to be doing it with the help of a safe person.

If you are having a rough time with things, this might be a good technique to try. It’s helpful to have a therapist around to make the overwhelming parts feel a bit less overwhelming, but it can be accomplished solo also. I will try to look up the link to the study I remember reading about this technique. I think I saved the link (or article) somewhere. I just have to find it again. I’ll add it here when I do.

UPDATE: found that article & how to link to it. It’s a free-access article through Taylor & Francis. “Check, Change What You Need To Change and/or Keep What You Want”: An Art Therapy Neurobiological-Based Trauma Protocol. They actually have a bunch of free-access articles that you can read without having to purchase anything. It’s a great resource.

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