The first rule of thumb is that no experience is necessary. It is easy to feel intimidated or shy about the idea of using art to process what you have been through, often we have old baggage about being criticized or misunderstood about our inherent creative nature. Yet, while some of the work you produce processing through art may be exceptional or lead to an art piece that you wish to display, the raw processing of trauma is generally not intended to be a masterpiece. Process art is a form of communication, it is your inner self externally sharing something of personal value and meaning on paper. It may represent a thought, feeling, or belief that you have inside, or perhaps the process art will be a form of meditation that allows you to be more present as you sift through memories, thoughts, and feelings.
When we have been through a traumatic experience, it impacts our body, mind, spirit and sense of self on a number of levels. Being diagnosed with a life threatening illness or having a traumatic injury, can deeply impact our sense of security in the world- often causing us to face a universal fear- the fear of dying. To survive this experience, we can become fragmented internally- compartmentalizing the components of what has felt too overwhelming to deal with at the moment. While initially this can be helpful, allowing us to not get bogged down when we need to focus on dealing with the immediate crisis, in the long run compartmentalization interferes with emotional, physical and spiritual recovery.
So why art? Art can help us internally titrate the processing of our traumatic illness or injury. Titration happens when we respect our nervous systems ability to manage the distress we feel when recalling aspects of a traumatic event- whether it is specific memories, thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. In other words, we need to break down an experience into manageable amounts of material, that will allows us to remain present and grounded rather than going into fight, flight or freeze mode.
When you are using art, part of your attention is focused on the paper and what you are doing with it. Moving into a project, you begin to slow down your physical sensations, allowing breathing to become soft and gentle, while the mind quiets and there is a peaceful internal quality. As you relax, you can begin to allow your internal focus to be lead to the information that needs to be processed at that time. As you focus on what wants to be expressed, it may even impact what you are doing or wish to do on the paper.
When you begin to notice yourself fatiguing or perhaps becoming more anxious or overwhelmed, this indicates that your nervous system is becoming taxed and needs a break. Making a promise to ourselves that we will return again at a future time, communicates that your system will have another chance to release. Giving yourself the opportunity to experience aspects of a traumatic experience in small doses allows you to experience healing without become re-traumatized. And while it might feel tempting to move into a recovered state quickly, you will be more likely to overlook things. Patience is an important part of the process, because grieving is a non-linear process that will ebb and flow in it’s intensity and even years out from an experience we can come to the realization that there is more work to be done.
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions in person or via Skype, as well as workshops and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.