Trauma Informed Care through Art Therapy

Trauma is a unique experience; no two people will experience trauma in the same exact way, thus the impact and responses to trauma are unique as well.  To better understand the various responses to trauma, research has found trauma is stored in the body through our somatic memory, specifically, the nervous system in the brain (Van der Kolk, 1994).  Furthermore, trauma can manifest through somatic flashbacks in the form of physical sensations, including tastes, smells, pain and haptic experiences.  Somatic flashbacks support the notion that memories, particularly trauma experiences, are stored in visual form.  When a traumatic event occurs, the Broca’s area of the brain, responsible for language, shuts down.  Simultaneously, the amygdala, the recognition center for danger in the brain, is put on high alert, resulting in the brain visually recording the traumatic event (Rausch et al., 1996).

To help individuals work through trauma that is held visually and physiologically, imagery and verbal expression can be introduced.  In particular, art expression has been found to effectively assist in grappling with sensory memories and facilitating a narrative to explore memories and flashbacks (Malchiodi, 2003).  When somatic memories are explored through art expression, an individual is able to develop an understanding of why they may be experiencing certain physical sensations to a particular event.  A unique feature of art therapy is that interpretation of the art created is completely up to the artist, allowing them to create their own language of expression.  Moreover, art therapy promotes growth, self-expression, emotional reparation, conflict resolution and transformation (Malchiodi, 1998).

A positive aspect of art therapy is that it provides a medium, art and its subsequent expression, that is not available in many other therapies and forms of expression.  However, caution should also be taken when using art therapy.  Art therapy should be used as art and therapy, with the understanding art is not therapy on it own.  Rubin (1999) stresses “therapy is not enough; art is not enough either”.

There are many forms of trauma-informed art therapy, below are common modalities utilized within carceral settings and how they allow for self-expression.

  • Dance: (hip hop, jazz, tap, modern) creates awareness and develops connection with the body; allows for expression of fear anger, hope, happiness
  • Music/Poetry/Writing: expands capacity for self-expression
  • Theatre: improvisation, play reading, script analysis; creation of scenes to replay responses to an event
  • Visual Arts: (painting, sculpting, pottery, collage) allows for expression of visual and emotional feelings; creates a starting point for dialogue and exploration

San Quentin State Prison, California, has a program called ArtReach which “provides a platform for artists on San Quentin’s death row to exhibit their art and creativity”. I invite you to peruse the site.  The art created includes paintings, drawings, poems, and papers.  Many of the poems and drawings capture the trauma of incarceration, being on death row, as well as self-revelations, personal growth, and peace.


Malchiodi, C. A. (1998). The art therapy sourcebook. Los Angeles: Lowell House.

Malchiodi, C. A. (Ed.). (2003). Handbook of art therapy. New York, NY: Guilford

Rausch, S.L., van der Kolk, B. A., Fisler, R.E. & Alpert, N.M. (1996) A symptom provocation study of posttraumatic stress disorder using positron emission tomography and script-driven imagery. Archives of General Psychiatry. 53(5), pp.380-387.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1(5), 253–265.

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