Divorce, infidelity, losing a job, and conflict are just some of the many things that can cause your brain to go into trauma mode. And if you don’t understand how trauma affects your brain, you may be wondering why you can’t just get over it.
I still remember the day a mentor sat me down and broke the news: “You really have experienced quite a bit of trauma,” she said. You may not view your divorce or job loss as traumatic, but that doesn’t always matter. What really defines an event as traumatic is how the brain responds.
I asked Dara Gervais, a Baltimore, Maryland-based art therapist who works with people who have been affected by trauma to elaborate. “Usually when we think of trauma we think of soldiers who have been through war or people who have experienced severe physical abuse,” says Gervais. “But anything the brain considers to be a physical or psychological threat, whether real or perceived, can be considered trauma.”
In the caveman days when we foraged for food, the brain had to respond very quickly to physical threats. You’ve probably heard of this phenomenon described as the fight, flight, or freeze response. If we didn’t have that response, the sabertooth tiger would eat us. If our trauma response kicked in and we got away, when the event was over we had a sense of pride that we survived. The trauma response was completed.
Today, we don’t have to experience a life-threatening situation to trigger the trauma response. We may have a big experience that qualifies as trauma, or it may be a series of small experiences.
“We call it big T trauma and little t trauma,” says Gervais. “Some experiences you may not think of as trauma, but they can accumulate and turn into that big T trauma.”
The problem with our experience of trauma in the modern-day world, says Gervais, is that we’re not completing the response. Instead of having that physical release, we’re holding it in—and that can negatively impact us in a lot of different ways.
How Trauma Impacts Daily Life
Some symptoms you might experience when your brain is having a trauma response are:
1. Anxiety over seemingly small things. For example, someone cuts you off on the road and your reaction is really intensely strong.
2. You feel spent and worn out. The constant sense of anxiety and sustained stress response that results from trauma can lead to heavy-duty fatigue.
3. Shame over your inability to get over the event(s). People might tell you to put it in the past and move on, but trauma doesn’t work like that. You can’t just get over it.
4. Flashbacks. You may re-experience a traumatic event with all your senses so that it feels like it’s happening in the present moment. This can be overwhelming.
5. You feel disconnected from yourself. You may look in the mirror and feel disconnected from the person staring back at you. When you look at your hand, you may feel that it’s not your own.
6. Dissociation. Trauma affects an area of the brain that does not have a sense of time. When you’re severely impacted, you can actually lose periods of time where you can’t remember minutes, hours, or even days.
7. Difficulty concentrating. You may have an unusually difficult time focusing at work or sustaining your attention long enough to accomplish the tasks of daily living.
8. Sleep disturbances and nightmares. Falling asleep or staying asleep may be a challenge, and intense dreams may disrupt your sleep.
9. Poor insight and difficulty setting boundaries. Gervais says that many of her clients have endured horrific things and yet they continue to give and give of themselves. Places where this might play out are in your relationships with friends and family as well as the dating arena.
If you find yourself getting sidelined by these symptoms and can’t figure out how to move forward, you have to find a new way to work through your past. It’s time to complete the trauma response, have that release, and feel your sense of pride as a survivor.
Completing the Trauma Response through Art Therapy
Many of us go through talk therapy in our efforts to recover from traumatic experiences. A less utilized form of therapy that can be especially conducive to processing trauma is art therapy. Whereas in talk therapy you’re talking about your feelings and difficulties, in art therapy, you talk, but you also introduce art to help process what you’ve experienced.
“In art therapy you put a part of yourself out in a tangible, physical space, and then you look at it and talk about it,” says Gervais. “As an art therapist, I offer specific materials to use and suggest a focus for the session. As we notice things about the work and the experience, we become more aware of ourselves. We process feelings, build understanding, and create meaning.”
Some of the materials Gervais uses with her clients are recycled images and words and a variety of papers for collage, painting, and drawing. She incorporates fabrics, shells, buttons, paints, colored pencils, pastels, markers, masks, and various sized boxes. She also uses a sand tray to complement her work.
“Materials range from easily controlled, for example pencils, to more fluid, for example watercolors,” says Gervais. “If you’re not feeling much control in your life, you might want to use easily controlled materials to express those feelings and regain a sense of control.”
Art therapy is a treatment of choice for processing trauma because it can reach that trauma-impacted area of the brain that is nonverbal and has no sense of time. That’s why you might feel like you are re-experiencing a traumatic event in the present and why it might be difficult to talk about.
“Art therapy helps to bridge and make sense of the fragments,” says Gervais.
If you’re serious about using art therapy to work through your trauma, it’s important to find a qualified professional. According to Gervais, a qualified art therapist will have a master’s degree in art therapy, be licensed if your state regulates art therapists, and may be board certified.
Valid credentials an art therapist may use are ATR (registered art therapist) or ATR-BC (board certified), LGPAT (licensed graduate professional art therapist), and LCPAT (licensed clinical professional art therapist). Good places to find a professional are the American Art Therapy Association and the directory on Psychology Today. You can also ask your talk therapist for a referral.
As with most mental health services, insurance coverage can be spotty for art therapy. Some art therapists have dual licensure (Gervais is also a licensed clinical professional counselor), which may allow them to bill for their services in a way that your insurance company will cover. If you aren’t able to use insurance, many art therapists will work with you on a sliding scale to make it more affordable.
DIY Healing Activities
While it’s important to work with a professional when processing trauma, creating art in and of itself is healing, and that’s something you can get started on at home right now.
“There’s a big difference when you’re creating art with a professional. Be careful not to trigger yourself,” warns Gervais. “At home, go for activities that put you in a state of flow.”
Gervais recommends choosing an activity that uses your hands—something that isn’t too challenging but not too easy. “Accessing flow is very healing,” says Gervais. “Research has shown that it actually builds new neural pathways in the brain.”
In addition to crocheting, knitting, collage, and coloring, some of Gervais’s suggestions include:
1. Visual Journaling. This activity combines words and art. You can create a visual journal by repurposing an old book, preferably thread bound instead of glue bound for strength. Gervais likes to use gesso (a hard compound that provides a base for painting) on the cover and then start on the inner pages. You might completely cover over some of the pages with collage. You can also use parts of pages by blocking out everything but certain words to create a poem or creating windows into pages to see the page behind it. Gervais recommends cutting out the pages with an X-ACTO knife and gluing some together to make thicker pages. Mod podge is a great tool to seal the pages as you complete them.
2. Strength Cards. Write an affirmation or think of one of your strengths. If you have a hard time identifying a strength, check out the VIA Institute on Character to learn about the 24 character strengths found in all people, and take the free quiz to identify yours. Next create a visual representation of that affirmation or strength. Carry your finished product with you. Pause and pay attention to it when you pull it out throughout the day.
3. Zen Tangle. Gervais describes this as an interesting form of doodling. Almost anyone can use this method to create images out of structured patterns. Learn more about it here.
Recovery and What to Expect
When can you expect to “get over it?” The bad news is that trauma doesn’t ever really go away.
“Trauma is a part of us,” says Gervais. “The reptile part of the brain is so stubborn.”
The good news is that it does get better. You can learn to build awareness of why you’re reacting the way that you are and discover new ways to get through the trauma response.
“Pay attention to your body and focus on that,” advises Gervais.
Creating art about your feelings helps release them from your body. Depending on the severity of your trauma, Gervais recommends being careful about verbalizing the details of the event(s) because you can trigger yourself and actually become re-traumatized. It could take a year or more before you are ready to safely process the trauma. A trusting therapeutic relationship can serve as a container to hold feelings you’re not yet ready to feel and can eventually become a safe space to process the trauma.
“You don’t have to be good at art to benefit from art therapy,” adds Gervais. “Sometimes it’s not about the product.”
Dara Gervais, LGPAT, LCPC, is a licensed art therapist and counselor, as well as a sand tray therapist, who works with adolescents and adults who are experiencing the effects of trauma and many other emotional difficulties. Learn more about her practice and her work at www.lookingglass-wellness.com. You can also find her on Psychology Today here.