Article by Rachel Preibisch
Everyone experiences stress at one point or another. However, one commonality is that stress is often linked to things we can’t control. Ideally, we experience “good stress.” Deadlines and external motivators can keep us on task and spur us on toward success. However, if stress becomes unrelenting on a day to day basis, it is important to consider its cause and to be aware that there are methods to alleviate it. Individuals who have experienced trauma may find it more difficult to cope with stress in healthy ways.
Expressive arts is a way of using the brain and the body to work through stress and traumatic experiences. One of its key benefits is supporting the development of self regulation. According to expressive arts expert Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, author of Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy, self regulation is not only the capacity to control one’s impulses, but also the ability to “modulate affective, sensory, and somatic responses, and cognition (Malchiodi, 2022).” This encompasses regulation of the body’s sensory reactions to distress, including the ability to cope with all sorts of feelings including sadness, worries, and fear.
The use of expressive arts therapy is beneficial to survivors of trauma because it incorporates bodily-kinesthetic methods of expressing memories for which individuals may not have appropriate language. As we’ve learned more about the science of trauma response, the body has become more central to treatment of various traumatic experiences. The expressive arts are one form of trauma work where the body is consistently in use and central to the process of healing.
According to Integrative Psychotherapy, expressive arts therapy draws from a variety of art forms, including writing, dance, movement, painting, drawing, play, and music, and it is based on the assumption that people can heal through self-discovery. The wonderful thing is that using the expressive arts is based on the process of creating and not on a certain outcome, making it available to anyone, regardless of their artistic experience. Expressive arts respects the unique process of each individual, and allows clients to push against boundaries that may be harder to remove in talk therapy.
The arts and stress reduction is an under-examined area in research, but studies offer support for this method of stress management. In one study published in the Journal of the Art Therapy Association, healthy adults participated in 45 minutes of unstructured artistic activity similar to an art therapy session. In 75% of participants saliva cortisol levels showed significant reduction between the pre- and post-experiment measurements. This was independent of previous artistic experience, gender, and chosen medium.
This study did find a weak correlation between stress biomarkers and age, with younger participants exhibiting higher cortisol reduction levels after creating art. This caused the researchers to speculate that younger people are still learning and experimenting with ways of stress reduction and facing challenges, according to Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor of creative arts therapies at Drexel University.
Another study from the Review of General Psychology examined different empirical studies looking at the effects of the arts and humanities on the lives of healthy adults, and concluded that there is considerable increase in well-being through involvement in the arts. In particular, music and visual arts showed increases in positive emotions. Involvement in music, literary arts, and visual arts indicated positive changes in quality of life measures, while involvement in music and dance showed increases in social well-being. In general, frequent positive outcomes from these interventions were relaxation and stress relief.
It doesn’t matter whether you practice artistic activities in a group or at home on your own, because anyone can participate. Not only is expressive art relaxing and inspiring, but it offers a simple and effective way to help us cope with difficulties in our lives. Expressive arts therapy is also available formally and is a beautiful method of coping with stress and healing from trauma under the supervision of a professional therapist.
According to Malchiodi, qualities of expressive arts serve as a form of embodied intelligence – something that informs what one knows and experiences in their environment. Because traumatized individuals experience dissociation from their bodies or may not be conscious of their bodies’ communications or what they sense from their surroundings, the expressive arts can reintroduce trauma survivors to how their bodies express emotions and feelings related to their trauma (Malchiodi, 2022).
Expressive art therapy is invaluable to survivors of trauma. However, it is not important to attend formal therapy sessions in order to gain the benefits of creating art. There are many ways to incorporate artistic activities into daily life to help manage stress. These can be done either in the comfort of your home or in a group. Suggestions for beginning a creative journey, might include:
- Visual journaling, for example incorporating sketches from nature, or beautiful or favorite images
Creating a collage
- Learning a skill, such as knitting, quilting, or woodworking
- Dancing to musi videos
- Joining a chorus or a choir
Creativity can also be explored through activities such as cooking, scrapbooking, or decorating a room in one’s home. Additionally, there are numerous classes offered by local schools and community centers where creative activity can be explored with others. These can include forms of bodily movement such as dance, or ones that incorporate breathing, such as Tai Chi. Thai Chi introduces a state of pleasant relaxation and encourages a quieting of the mind, and it is associated with psychological benefits such as reduced stress and anxiety.
It’s important to remember that every single person has innate creativity, and skill or experience isn’t necessary to experience the benefits of art. The most important thing is to enjoy the activity. There is no need to be an expert or even to have previous experience.
The arts have always served to bring individuals and communities together. They enhance the beauty in our world and create more meaningful experiences in our lives. By introducing the expressive arts into our routines we can find a creative, playful way to facilitate growth and healing while exploring our inner lives and connections to others.
Cathy Malchiodi, PhD. Expressive Arts Therapy and Somatosensory Psychotherapy in Trauma Healing and Recovery. 2022. https://www.cathymalchiodi.com/