I think I always hoped that art therapy could help people who had been through difficult, painful, and traumatic experiences in their lives, but it wasn’t until I started actually doing art therapy, and collaborating closely with other mental health professionals, that I understood exactly how powerful art therapy could be.

Time after time, fellow therapists would come to me, worried that their clients were not able to talk about their past traumatic experiences. They expressed care and concern, but also frustration at their inability to help their clients access the memories in a safe enough way to allow them to talk about and “process” them.

I guess I assumed the same thing would happen in art therapy.

But, time and time again, these same clients were able to use art materials to express the horror and pain they’d experienced. By first tapping into their sensory memories through art-making, and bypassing the brain’s traditional defense mechanisms, they could find words to go along with their art. They could access their emotions, but those emotions didn’t prevent them from feeling safe as they worked in the studio. The art therapy then becomes a bridge between what they need to talk about in therapy, creating the safety needed to trust themselves and others.

I’ve been experiencing this miracle with clients and therapists now for nearly 15 years. It never becomes routine or commonplace to me, as I humbly work alongside these survivors to tell their stories, find their voices, and understand their emotions.

What does surprise me, though, is when doctors, scientists, and researchers are able to get on board.

Such was my experience last week when I attended a 2-day conference with Bessel van der Kolk, an MD psychiatrist and researcher who has been working to empirically understand the brain’s response to trauma since the 1970’s. Although he is trained in traditional scientific methods, has been a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, and was one of the chief contributors to the PTSD diagnostic information in both the DSM-IV and DSM-V, Van der Kolk has come to believe that the best way to help people heal from trauma is by incorporating alternative treatments and methods.

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Dr. Van der Kolk is an advocate of EMDR, yoga, the expressive therapies, play therapy, and other methods to help clients find healing and relief from their trauma symptoms. Throughout the two days, he showed multiple examples of art made by traumatized clients. He shared research comparing psychotropic medications such as Prozac against alternative, holistic, and body-based interventions, and he encouraged the several hundred traditional therapists in the room to open their minds, get training and education in using these methods. His message was clear: stop relying on talk therapy alone.

For many clients, it just doesn’t work. Thanks to Bessel van der Kolk and other brave, pioneering researchers, we are beginning to understand some of the reasons why.

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