Art and PTSD

When we are subjected to intense stress, our memory becomes vulnerable. While wounds may heal, memory disruptions can persist for a long time. Different parts of the brain are involved in the process of memory formation. The amygdala detects danger, the hippocampus adds tags, such as when and where events occurred, whether similar incidents have happened before, and records this information in autobiographical memory. The prefrontal cortex helps us make sense of what is happening. Consequently, our memory is structured.



During severe stress, the hippocampus struggles to cope, and information is stored in memory chaotically. It lacks connections to time and place, and it fails to indicate that the stressful situation has concluded. This results in fragmented, unconnected sensory information, scenes, shapes, and more. It lacks an understanding of the events (the cortex's role). This is why traumatic memories are so distinct from regular ones. They are challenging to express in words, hard to reconstruct into a story, they do not diminish, and there is no sense of the situation coming to an end. They can be reactivated by a random trigger in the form of an image, smell, or sound. Memory suppression often occurs. This is why it's not advisable to sleep right after a traumatic event as it further engrains traumatic memories.

When verbal access is lost or impaired, individuals with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) find it challenging to discuss what happened or to contemplate it. This is where art therapy comes to the rescue. It allows the safe extraction of fears and anxieties, distancing from them, giving them form in an object, and expressing what cannot be conveyed with words. This enables access to the traumatic memory and its processing.

Art therapy involves visual, tactile, and spontaneous triggers, reducing pain like exposure therapy. It converts emotions into words, allowing for cognitive-behavioral practices. The results of art therapy are visible and can be preserved. Art therapy typically progresses through three stages: first, focusing on symptom stabilization and alleviation, second, trauma processing, and lastly, comprehension and integration.

Art therapy encompasses a wide range of activities, including singing, dancing, sculpting, painting, composing poetry, playing musical instruments, and more. Special techniques like zentangle or coloring mask templates, which were used in studies of PTSD in war veterans, can be employed. Utilizing imagination, creativity, and fantasy allows for the safe expression of what is difficult to put into words, the gentle touch of what evokes horror, the creation of a story from fragmented memory shards.



Active-duty military service members’ visual representations of PTSD and TBI in masks Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2017; 12(1): 1267317.

'Master My Demons': art therapy montage paintings by active-duty military service members with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress Med Humanit 2019 Dec;45(4):353-360.

A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Studies of Art Therapy Journal of the American Art Therapy Association Volume 31, 2014 - Issue 1

The Effectiveness of Art Therapy in the Treatment of Traumatized Adults Trauma, Violence & Abuse Vol. 16, No. 2 (April 2015), pp. 220-228