The Value of Art Expression in Trauma-Informed Work

Posted by Gretchen Miller on October 31, 2014 in art, art therapy category

November launches Arts and Health Month, which is a great opportunity to reflect on the positive value of the arts in trauma intervention and recovery.

The benefits of creating art and engaging in the creative process to promote emotional expression, cope with traumatic stress, and strengthen sense of self are many. Here are a few of the important themes and considerations connected to trauma-informed work and how art can be a therapeutic tool for grounding, reflection and growth:

  • Visual Voice: Art expression is a powerful way to safely contain and create separation from the terrifying experience of trauma without the necessity of or reliance on verbal language to share ones story (Morrissey, 2013). This creative manifestation can become a visual voice that can help retrieve content from lower-functioning parts of the brain where traumatic experiences live without words and can transform into drawings on paper, molded into clay, painted onto a canvas and more. Art safely gives voice to and makes a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts and memories visible when words are insufficient.
  • Finding Safety: Activating and using the imagination to convey visual symbols and representations of safety through creative experiences can help bring some relief associated with overwhelming states of fear and alarm. Art making can help restore a sense of emotional safety and wellbeing (Cohen, Barnes, Rankin, 1995), which is an essential foundation to start stabilizing terror into manageable states of contentment and security.
  • Structured, Sensory Intervention: Steele (2003) speaks to the challenges that trauma has on our explicit (cognitive) vs. implicit (sensory) memory. Engaging in the expression of art as a form of trauma intervention taps into the implicit functioning of the brain that can tell the experience of trauma through visual representations, not words. TLC’s SITCAP leverages the power of drawing to access sensory-based content for the expression of powerful emotions often connected to trauma, such as fear, anxiety, anger, hurt, guilt and shame (Steele & Kuban, 2013).
  • Empower Resilience: In a recent article about neurobiology, trauma and art expression published in the art therapy literature by Hass-Cohen, Clyde Findlay, Carr, and Vanderlan, (2014) the authors highlight, “trauma-informed, resiliency-orientated interventions increase a person’s mastery, coping and quick recovery from short- and long-term stress responses” (p.71). Engaging in art supports the survivor to make choices, problem solve, make meaning, and safely learn how to successfully navigate trauma reactions and stresses in the safety of the therapeutic experience. This creative process also strengthens one’s internal locus of control and empowers new ways of seeing the self and the recovery path ahead.

To learn more about the benefits of art therapy and trauma, as well as the value of engaging in creative activities, these sites and resources are also helpful to check out:



Cohen, B., Barnes, M., & Rankin, A. (1995). Managing traumatic stress
through art. Baltimore: The Sidran Press.

Hass-Cohen, N., Clyde Findlay, J., Carr, R., & Vanderlan, J. (2014). “Check, change
what you need to change and/or keep what you want”: An art therapy neurobiological-based trauma protocol. Art Therapy: Journal of the
American Art Therapy Association, 31(2), pp. 69-78.

Morrissey, P. (2013). Trauma finds expression through art therapy. Health Progress:
Journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. May-June 2013, pp. 44-47.

Steele, W., & Kuban, C. (2013). Working with grieving and traumatized children and
adolescents: Discovering what matters most through evidence-based, sensory interventions. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Steele, W. (2003). When cognitive interventions fail with children of trauma:
Memory, learning, and trauma intervention. The National Institute for
Trauma and Loss in Children.

Categories: art, art therapy

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. 

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