The Role of Artmaking and Symbolism in Trauma Therapy
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 10 Jul 2023
3 Jul 2023 – In the long-term treatment of Complex Trauma, when we look at the internal processes that go on within the mind and body of a trauma survivor, we realise that it is a complicated process because what we are trying to disentangle is multidimensional and invisible. On the one hand, there is a profound longing to live a life that is fully embodied; on the other hand, there are layers of memories, images, fears, disconnection from oneself and others, and the rising and ebbing of emotional arousal that is often chronic.
The longing for freedom from fright, numbness and suffering is as intense as the need to never let one’s psychological and physical integrity be broken apart by anyone. For trauma survivors, a sense of fright and the need to protect oneself from a threat, that always appears to be around the corner can often become a dominant unconscious psychological process. There is a resolve in the unspoken rulebook of one’s life that one will never let it happen even once what happened to them as a child: the state of being completely dependent and powerless; being emotionally dominant due to their stage of brain development (Fisher, 2017), and one’s gestures of reaching out for care, affection and safety being met with humiliation, violence or neglect.
These two opposing forces can take a long time to become visible in the therapy room, both to the client and to the psychotherapist because in the layers of the client’s psyche, self-protective mechanisms ensure that clients often reach out for help only with general distress such as ‘attracting the wrong people in their lives’ or ‘being treated unfairly by others’ or that they have ‘just been a lonely person all their lives’.
Because trauma is a wounding and breaking down of the protective barrier of the integrity of a person’s psyche and body (Garland, 2018), it is no wonder that clients often come into psychotherapy with the hope of ‘managing’ one’s life rather than wanting to transform it. Because there is a fear that one’s protective barrier that was once broken without consent or respect, will be broken again. It is for this reason that a person desires to simply ‘protect’ oneself from the perceived or real threats of one’s life.
An integral part of trauma-informed psychotherapy is the informed consent of the client: how deep would they like to travel into their emotions? In what length would they like to talk about their experience? What would they like from the therapeutic relationship in this moment? A respectful consent sought by a psychotherapist is part of the reparative and healing process for a client’s distressed self. In trauma-informed psychotherapy, we create the conditions that should have been in place historically to allow a healthy relational growth for the client. From that perspective, the relationship between the client and the therapist is a ‘co-creation’ of what is experienced as calming, trustworthy and therapeutic by the client’s psyche and the nervous system.
When working with trauma survivors, I often use artmaking and sandplay in the therapeutic process. What is the role of creativity in helping a client heal and recover from the fright- or numbness-driven symptoms of trauma?
The process of creating what I call as ‘psychological art’ is the process of trusting the ‘wisdom of the body’ (Levine, 2010) by allowing it to express through hand movements, the physical energy and instinctual physical responses that could not be released during the client’s historic traumatic experiences. Psychological art is also a process of trusting the self-healing capacity in the unconscious (Bradway & McCoard, 1997), and allowing it to bring into awareness, through the use of metaphor and externalising, that what is unsettling to put into words.
The reason why I call this process of artmaking as ‘psychological art’ is because in my experience, when I ask most adult clients to “just sketch or draw on a piece of paper, whatever needs to be expressed”, the sophistication of the adult minds kick-in. There is a sense of shame and inadequacy in not being able to draw. I tell my clients that the goal of this process is not to make a “good-looking” image, but to spontaneously allow something of their experience – the pain, the fright, the rage, the disconnection – to be expressed, which is otherwise difficult to become conscious of.
What comes out of the psyche during this spontaneous drawing is the symbolic communication from the unconscious (Elwood, 2020). From a Jungian perspective (Miller, 2004), a symbol produced by the unconscious has the capacity to reveal that which needs to emerge, but a symbol equally conceals at the same time because its full meaning cannot become manifest immediately. In a trauma-informed process of artmaking, the process of understanding the image is facilitated by the psychotherapist, but lead by the client. The client is allowed to access as much meaning of the symbols as he is ready to. This process upholds the principle of consent, as described above.
Equally valuable in allowing the self-healing capacity of the unconscious to manifest is when clients can express and release their bodily discomfort or numbness in a sandtray using hand movements to first play with the sand, and then pick up symbols (i.e. figurines) to represent a snapshot of their internal world in that moment.
Multiple-incident trauma, when experienced through the course of childhood with no possible escape out of it, is largely a non-verbal experience, because during a traumatic incident, amongst other things, the long-term memory structure of the brain, the hippocampus goes offline (Van der Kolk, 2014). Trusting the self-healing capacity of the unconscious, and allowing it to express the footprints of traumatic memories and activation – in the manner that they reside today in one’s brain, body and nervous system – in the form of artmaking or symbols on the sandtray, combined with an empathic psychotherapist to guide and witness the process uncovers an unconscious story that holds a grip over a client’s life and runs it to an extent.
When the post-traumatic processes, including the fragmented parts of a client that are totally unconscious, can be made visible, the client can begin to observe what happens in them through the medium of symbolic images, rather than re-experience, without awareness or control what happens in them.
The significance of transpersonal psychotherapy in trauma treatment is therefore twofold. The first is its premise that the unconscious (or nonverbal) processes reveal themselves through the means of symbols (Jung, 1964), either allowed to be produced or picked by the unconscious. The second is its premise that the capacity to change and transform is inherent within us (Hamilton, 2018), and one only needs to place enough trust in this function of the unconscious to allow it to emerge during the conversational and artmaking process in psychotherapy.
Bradway, K., & McCoard, B. (1997). Sandplay: Silent Workshop of the Psyche. Hove: Routledge.
Elwood, P. A. (2020). A Jungian approach to spontaneous drawing: A window on the soul. London: Routledge.
Fisher, J. (2017). Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation. Oxford: Routledge.
Garland, C. (2002). Understanding trauma: A Psychoanalytical Approach. London: Karnac.
Hamilton, N. (2018). Awakening Through Dreams: The Journey Through The Inner Landscape. Oxford: Routledge.
Jung, C. G. (1964). Approaching the unconscious. In C. G. Jung (Ed.), Man and his Symbols (pp. 18-103). London: Arkana.
Levine, P. A. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Miller, J. C. (2004). The Transcendent Function: Jung’s model of psychological growth through dialogue with the unconscious. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. London: Penguin Books.
Sumeet Grover is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist working in private practice in Bedfordshire, UK. His third book of poetry, Signals, was published by Smallberry Press in 2017. He has authored also: House Arrest & Disobedience (2015) and Change (2011). He is a winner of the Portico Brotherton Open Poetry Prize 2014 and was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize in 2014 & 2015. Grover is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.
Tags: Art, Psychology, Therapy, Trauma
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Jul 2023.
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