Creative Arts Therapies and Trauma


Creative Arts Therapies Week is recognized every March as an opportunity for creative arts therapists to promote and bring awareness to the power of these disciplines and its role in the human services field. The National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies (NCCATA) sponsors this special week, which includes art therapy, music therapy, dance/movement therapy, drama therapy, poetry therapy, and psychodrama. This year, Creative Arts Therapies Week will be celebrated March 13-19. 

As trauma practitioners, we know the benefits of processes that engage the senses and the role that non-verbal expression can have to help youth manage trauma and loss.  Creative arts therapies offer children and adolescents impacted by trauma a safe outlet to express feelings of worry, sadness, fear, anger, and more. Creative arts therapists, who hold professional credentials and have fulfilled the necessary training in their respective field, utilize art-based interventions and the creative process as the primary mode of their clinical practice with individuals, groups, families, and communities. 

Below is an overview of each field and a closer look at its benefits in relationship to trauma intervention and recovery, including some trauma informed resources to learn more:

Art Therapy- As an art therapist, I like to describe art therapy as the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs. Art therapy uses art media and the creative process to aid in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, create coping skills, manage stress, and strengthen sense of self.  Art therapy facilitated by an art therapist provides mental health treatment for clients who have experienced trauma, grief & loss, depression, major life change, chronic illness, and anxiety.  As I highlighted in a previous TLC post about the value of art expression, art can safely give voice to and make a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts and memories visible when words are insufficient. This Art Therapy, Children, and Trauma Toolkit created by The American Art Therapy Association  (AATA) provides more information about how art therapy and the work of art therapists help children manage the emotional challenges of trauma.

Music Therapy- The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. “  The use of music in the form of song and instrument playing addresses the overall well-being of individuals. In regards to trauma intervention, the sensory based expression of music can help restore a sense of safety, promote coping, and relaxation for youth who have experienced trauma.  AMTA’s resource Music Therapy in Response to Crisis and Trauma describes more about how music therapy and working with a music therapist can benefit youth impacted by trauma.

Dance Therapy- The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance/movement (DMT) therapy as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual”. In relationship to trauma, DMT utilizes the body/mind connection to provide a safe outlet for self-expression, reclaim control, manage traumatic stress, and self-regulation. For traumatized children, the ADTA reports that DMT approaches and intervention can have positive treatment benefits to address changes in the brain, nervous system, and behaviors effected by trauma.   Learn more about the use of DMT and Trauma with this Information Sheet and Bibliography.

Drama Therapy- The Northern American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) defines drama therapy as “an active, experiential approach to facilitating change through storytelling, projective play, purposeful improvisation, and performance”.  Drama therapy can also include role-playing and other theater inspired approaches facilitated within a therapeutic framework.  With children, drama therapy particularly taps into the language of play and storytelling to help explore and address difficult emotions and create a non-threatening environment for strengthening coping skills, improving self-expression, and attachments.  The NADTA published this fact sheet to highlight the benefits of drama therapy and how this modality makes a difference in the lives of children and adolescents.

Poetry Therapy- This form of creative art therapy uses literature and poetry, writing, journaling, as well as the language arts and storytelling to address issues such as, but not limited to feelings, self identity, and help contain or manage overwhelming experiences, thinking patterns, and emotional states.  The use of poetry therapy also provides a safe symbolic language for self-expression and making meaning.  Using written reflection and response as a means for self-soothing and coping can also be beneficial for trauma survivors.   The National Association for Poetry Therapy offers this Integrative Medicine Packet to highlight different examples of how poetry therapy is used, including with severe trauma. TLC Blogger Carmen Richardson also shares her experiences with using creative writing in her trauma work with this past post.

Psychodrama- Through therapeutically led experiential experiences, this creative method of acting offers individuals and groups a safe place to experiment with and engage in new roles or re-enact experiences. Areas such as insight, emotional catharsis, support, and coping can also be of therapeutic benefit in trauma recovery. The American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama further defines psychodrama and sociometry practice in this resource.

A referral to a creative arts therapist can be helpful to the young client who appears to respond strongly to the use of creative expression.  Treatment and intervention by a creative arts therapist can provide a trained and an applicable understanding in their respective discipline about the power of the arts for youth exposed to trauma.  Each of these sites provides more information about how to find a credentialed creative arts therapist:

American Art Therapy Association: http://www.arttherapy.org

American Music Therapy Association: http://www.musictherapy.org

American Dance Therapy Association: http://www.adta.org

North American Drama Therapy Association: http://www.nadta.org

National Association for Poetry Therapy: http://www.poetrytherapy.org

American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama: http://www.asgpp.org

About Gretchen Miller

Gretchen M. Miller, MA, ATR-BC, ACTP is a Cleveland, Ohio based Registered Board Certified Art Therapist and TLC Advanced Certified Trauma Practitioner. Over the course of her career Gretchen has provided art therapy to children, adolescents, families, and adults in shelters, residential treatment, mental health programs, outreach services, and more. Gretchen is also an adjunct faculty member for the Counseling & Art Therapy Graduate Program at Ursuline College, as well as teaches and presents regionally and nationally on the application of art therapy and trauma intervention. 

To schedule a training or consultation, please contact info@starr.org.

Read Gretchen Miller’s Bio

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