Suffering from PTSD? Instead of Denying the Flashbacks, Try Going for Art Therapy

How trauma is stored in the brain and what to do about it.

“Art can permeate the very deepest part of us, where no words exist.”

Eileen Miller

 Recent research has shown that using art therapy to treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) effectively helps people suffering from trauma and can reduce the symptoms of PTSD. Here is a short neuroscientific explanation of why this is so.

Human experience is stored in memory banks located on both sides of the brain.

Explicit memories are stored in the left hemisphere of the brain, which are consciously remembered and can be described in words. An example of an explicit memory is the kind of sandwich that you ate for lunch.

In contrast, implicit memories, which are unconscious, sensory, and automatic, are stored on the right side of the brain. Reading, typing, or playing music are examples of implicit memories. You don’t have to think about how to type, or remember the letters on the keyboard. It’s automatic.

When a person faces a perceived or actual threat to his existence, his body goes into trauma mode. Because the threat is so overwhelming and frightening, the brain instantaneously activates the trauma response, which is fight, flight, or freeze. As this happens, the mind shuts down and disconnects from the experience, so that the survival mechanisms can happen on autopilot. 

The disconnection of the mind shuts down the left brain. The trauma experience is imprinted on the right brain. As is the memory of the trauma, which henceforth is stored on the right side of the brain, too. 

This doesn’t mean that the trauma memory is necessarily unconscious. What it does mean is that when memories of the trauma pop up, often sparked by sensory triggers, they are re-experienced with the same intensity and with the same disconnection as during the trauma, causing many of the symptoms of PTSD.

In order to work on the trauma in therapy, the memory must be accessed in the right brain and engaged in the left brain.

In contrast to verbal therapy, art therapy engages both sides of the brain at the same time. As a result, the trauma memory can be accessed in the right hemisphere without shutting down the verbal part of the brain, and it can be gently discussed and processed.

Similarly, EMDR is an effective treatment for PTSD, because it also engage both sides of the brain. 

If your symptoms of trauma persist and you suspect you are suffering from PTSD, practice self-care and go for help. You don’t need to suffer forever. Human beings are tremendously resilient and you can feel better.

As an art therapist, I recommend art therapy to treat PTSD, because the art can effectively process your experiences and reduce the painful symptoms.

When you go to trauma therapy, you must find a therapist with experience and training in treating trauma. That’s because trauma therapy has a risk of re-traumatization – i.e. reawakening the trauma without resolving it. And that’s the last thing you want! 

So get recommendations for a good therapist who has helped other people who suffer from trauma. 


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