Expressing the Unspeakable

Expressing the Unspeakable

by DJM

Art therapy is “especially helpful to those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” (Spinner, 2007). The main focus of this paper is on combat veterans, because war is one of the most extreme traumas that can be experienced. If art therapy effectively treats wartime trauma, it will surely be effective in treating most other traumatic experiences. What is art therapy? Why and how does it affect PTSD? What do those who are receiving art therapy have to say about it and how has it helped them? Art therapy has been around for quite some time, but only now is beginning to catch on, being used more and in more diverse settings. “Art therapy can be an essential way to help individuals heal from trauma experiences.” (Holtman, 2006)

People have been expressing themselves trough art since prehistoric times. The meaning of our artistic expressions and the objects that are produced from them have evolved in over time. From cave paintings depicting a successful hunt to nervous doodles on a notebook, our artistic expressions vary widely in meaning, style and purpose. The use of art in therapeutic settings started in the early twentieth century and became more popular from the late sixties onward (Ahmed, 2006). “Art Therapy uses imagery to: Safely and effectively access traumatic memories, Reduce anxiety, depression, numbing, as well as other symptoms related to PTSD, and to Promote verbal processing” (Ayala)

Drawing, painting, sculpting, writing and other creative forms of expression can be used to “provide a vehicle for exploring concerns and conflicts, to gain access to traumatic images and memories, to help build a trusting therapeutic relationship between client and therapist, and to access and promote healing” (Bowers, 1992; Johnson, 1987; Oster & Gould, 1987; Salmon, 1993 in Glaister, 2000).

Perhaps as a quirk, malfunction or an evolutionary leftover, our bodies make recovery from trauma difficult. “During the fight or flight response, parts of the brain that are not required for survival are inhibited. Memory is affected in such a way during this response, that it is difficult to impossible to recall memories of the event and put them into words” (Holtman, 2006).

“Research has found that conventional methods of treatment may not be the best for treating trauma. One example of this is desensitization, which encourages the individual to explain or reenact their trauma experience repeatedly so as to “desensitize” them. In some cases this may actually trigger anxiety or a “flashback” and in effect, worsen the condition rather than heal it. (Holtman, 2006)

“Art therapy’s engaging and tactile process is ideal in treating trauma. The visceral process is able to activate and access the sensory parts of the brain in non-verbal ways, which supports the natural progression of the ‘stuck’ trauma memory. Expression of memories and feelings connected to a trauma in nonverbal ways can act as a bridge, connecting the activated abstract (non-verbal) and concrete sensory memories with the organizing areas of the brain, allowing for progress in the cognitive process” (Holtman, 2006).

The combination of the non-verbal with the verbal gives art therapy a valuable place in the treatment of PTSD as well a other trauma induced problems. Aside from allowing the traumatic experience to be more fully remembered and better understood, and helping in the development of coping skills, “the act of making art endows the individual with control of both materials and image formation, supporting an intra-psychic sense of regained power” (Holtman, 2006)

Veterans find art therapy to be an important part of their healing process, stating that art therapy is “relaxing, gives them focus, develops and encourages creativity, it is grounding, and helps in the comprehension of their experiences of war.” (Spinner, 2007) Judy A. Glaister (2000) in a case study of a woman named Clara, who suffers from posttraumatic response, finds that her:

Drawings helped [her] access and explore her self-concept, feelings, and behaviors . . . [she] believed that the drawings helped her gain insight and make changes . . . Drawings were useful . . . in these sessions mainly as a technique to help her explore hidden and new areas of herself . . . Through the exploration of her drawings, aspects of the self became more apparent, leading to new insights, new responses, and renewed growth (Betensky, 1995; Oster & Gould, 1987; Salmon, 1993). The drawings helped Clara recognize patterns, connections, and changes.
Despite the positive effect art therapy has on many veterans, “Veteran and military hospitals employ few art therapists and provide limited art therapy classes”
(Spinner, 2007).

This may be due to misconceptions about art therapy and the need for more research in the area. “Kate Collie and colleagues as a part of a larger effort within the American Art Therapy Association and the art therapy community to develop evidenced-based treatments for Veterans, particularly those with PTSD have:”
analyzed data on “best practices” in art therapy with combat-related PTSD, concluding that art therapy may be a treatment of choice with returning Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. In her summary, Collie notes,

“although art therapy has been understudied with Veterans, it shows promise in the treatment of hard-to-treat symptoms combat-related PTSD, such as avoidance behaviors and emotional numbing, while also addressing the psychological situations that give rise to these symptoms (American Art Therapy Association, Inc., 2007)

“In summary, art therapy can be an essential way to help individuals heal from trauma experiences”(Holtman, 2006). The visceral process of art therapy can help to bridge the non-verbal with the verbal parts of the brain and memory. Art therapy has been used and found effective by veterans and more research is being done so that it can be taken more seriously and be funded more widely.


Ahmed, S. H., & Siddiqi, M. N. (Dec 23, 2006). Healing through art therapy in disaster settings. The Lancet, 368, 9554. p.S28(2). Retrieved December 02, 2007, from General OneFile via Gale:

Ayala, K Art Therapy for Treating PTSD. (n.d.) Retrieved December 2,
2007, from The Center for Creativity Web site: http:/

Barker, E. (Nov 2006). The artist within: creating art can help you manage anger, grief, and other difficult emotions. (No talent required!). Natural Health, 36, 10. p.98(2). Retrieved November 30, 2007, from General OneFile via Gale:

Glaister, J A (Jan 2000). Four Years Later: Clara Revisited. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 36, 1. p.5. Retrieved November 30, 2007, from General OneFile via Gale:

Holtman, Jayne (2006). Art Therapy and New Perspectives in Treating Trauma. Retrieved November 30, 2007, from Main Line Health Web site:

Spinner, Jackie (2007, April 15). War’s Pain, Softened With a Brush Stroke. Washington Post, p. C01.

American Art Therapy Association, Inc. (Winter 2007). Art Therapy Shows Promise with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. American Art Therapy Association, Inc.
Newsletter, XI, Retrieved Nov. 30, 2007, from


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