Explore 8 engaging art therapy activities for trauma survivors. Step-by-step guides, objectives, and therapist tips are included.
Art therapy is a creative form of self-expression — a psychotherapy practice that transcends verbal communication. It is considered an effective approach for people, especially children, who don’t respond well to traditional means of therapy.
Art can bring meaning to complex emotions and feelings. Finding ways to materialize aspects of your life that can’t be summed up in words can stimulate healing. These attributes have made art therapy an effective approach to helping individuals suffering from issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This article explores different art therapy activities for trauma, and how these can help individuals work through difficult emotions.
The Role of Therapy in Trauma Recovery
Art therapy is a creative approach to traditional therapy; one where you are not bound by words to communicate. Individuals suffering from trauma often find it hard to articulate verbally how they feel. As such, they are less likely to show improvement solely from traditional therapy. Art therapy can supplement the traditional approach, where individuals benefit from the non-verbal and unrestrained nature of art.
Art therapy has proven to be useful in decreasing the symptoms of PTSD and depression. It promotes self-discovery and healing by helping individuals tap into their deepest emotions and subconscious thoughts in a safe, supportive setting. The artworks created help convey what the artist might find difficult to say out loud, making them feel heard and validated.
Art Therapy Activities for Trauma
Art therapy activities know no bounds. Here is a list of creative ideas to incorporate into your classes to help trauma survivors:
Guided Imagery and Drawing
PTSD treatments often incorporate guided imagery techniques to stimulate self-healing. The process includes the use of descriptive language to guide individuals through a specific scenario in their minds. This approach can help them explore troubling memories and tap into subconscious thoughts in a controlled way.
For this activity, you can have the student explore their representation of a “Safe Haven.” Encourage them to add detail and explore the feelings of comfort linked to each aspect of the image. Then, ask them to picture an aspect of their trauma in the form of a distant cloud and feel what it stimulates.
Allowing themselves to access difficult emotions while in the safety of their bubble can help them regain control.
Emotional expression through colors
Where words might fail, colors can communicate our depth of emotions. Art therapy can morph trauma into resilience through imagination and reframing.
For this art therapy activity, ask the participant to create a self-portrait. Encourage them to use different colors and shades to highlight their emotions. For example, red is often associated with passion, love, and anger, while blue can represent calmness or sadness. The depth and unlimited possibilities of color combinations can help convey complex feelings.
Through this activity, participants can explore the intricacy of their emotions and discover themselves in new ways.
Sculpting and Three-Dimensional Art
Recreating a representation of something or someone missing from their lives can stimulate emotional healing. Trauma survivors often find themselves overwhelmed by extreme emotions that can’t be put into words. Sculpting offers them an inventive way to express and work through those emotions.
For this activity, ask the participant to create an abstract representation of something they have lost and how it makes them feel. This activity promotes self-reflection and eases the individual into accepting their feelings.
Collages are symbolic representations used to convey a feeling, emotion, or state of mind. Individuals can choose from a range of images, texts, and artistic tools to create a metaphoric depiction of their trauma. Using a range of mediums to embody their deep thoughts can help them gain insight into their experience and control their trauma narrative.
For this creative activity, distribute magazines, collage bases, and a variety of decoration materials. Encourage them to use as many images and prompts from the materials to reveal their emotions.
Textile art involves a repetitive and rhythmic method that can induce a sense of calm. It is believed to help an individual regulate their emotions and trauma symptoms.
To carry out this activity, provide the participant with a fabric square. Encourage them to decorate it to their heart’s content, adding personal touches. Supply them with fabric markers, paints, or a needle and threads of varying colors.
Ask them to focus on a feeling of resilience as they work on the piece. After completion, ask them to share their experience and talk about what the design signifies.
Dance and Movement-Based Art Therapies
Body movement therapy is an art form. It recognizes that our bodies store trauma which can cause feelings of dissociation. By focusing on creative expression through body movements, individuals can learn to reconnect with their bodies and emotions. Here’s an activity to try out in your next movement art therapy class:
Instruct the student to stand up and direct their attention to each body part
Sense areas of discomfort and focus breathing into them, slow and steady
Start with gentle rhythmic movements, such as swaying or rocking
Ask them to close their eyes and visualize shedding negative emotions as they move.
Encourage them to envision themselves in a setting where they feel at ease.
Tell them to try and feel every sensation and emotion that comes up
Have them slowly bring their body to a halt, continuing to accept the sense of safety they’ve nurtured.
When they open their eyes, encourage them to reflect on how it made them feel.
Music and Sound Therapy
Music therapy is known to ease symptoms of PTSD and improve the well-being of trauma survivors. For this activity, have participants create soundtracks about their lives. Hand out templates that ask for a soundtrack title and the names of five to six songs.
You can instruct the participants to mention a song each for their past, present, and future selves, along with two or three songs that are close to their hearts. When they are done, encourage them to share their experience with each song and how it relates to a certain time in their life. It can help them access buried emotions and work through their trauma.
Digital Art Therapy
Digital art therapy is a great way to connect with younger generations who are comfortable with technology and may not feel engaged by traditional art methods. It also makes art accessible to those with physical limitations.
As an engaging digital art therapy activity, ask the participant to create a collage on a tablet that symbolizes their relationship with trauma. Encourage them to access their emotions and fears related to a specific experience, using as many images, prompts, and colors as they wish.
It could be an abstract representation with multiple layers — surreal images can be an effective way to discover complex emotions. When they’re done, encourage them to share what the collage signifies and talk about the experience.
Post-Activity Reflection and Discussion
Here are a few post-activity practices to help the students make the most of every session:
Encouraging Participants to Share Their Experiences
Ensuring that your students feel comfortable throughout the process is essential. You can do so by asking them how the activity made them feel. But it’s important to consider that trauma survivors don’t easily open up. So, while you encourage them to share how they feel at the end of every session, realize that it should be their own prerogative.
Guiding Questions to Help Participants Process Their Emotions
Guiding questions are designed to encourage deeper reflection on the theme of the class. Here are some examples:
How did you feel during the activity?
Would you like to share anything about your creation?
Did you feel uncomfortable at any point? If so, what can be changed to make you feel at ease?
It’s important to make sure not to overwhelm the student with excessive questions and let them answer when they are ready.
Validating and Acknowledging Participants’ Feelings
As the student begins to open up, assure them that their feelings are valid and understood. A simple “I can understand how that experience makes you feel” or “It must be difficult to deal with such feelings every day” can make the student feel heard and acknowledged.
Make sure to thank them for sharing their experience. It encourages them to go over difficult emotions and work through them with you.
How do I know if art therapy is effective for a particular individual?
Look for signs of emotional release, increased self-awareness, and positive feedback from the participant. Each individual’s journey is unique, so regular check-ins are essential.
What if a participant is reluctant to engage in an activity?
It’s essential to respect boundaries. If a participant is reluctant to engage, offer alternative activities or a safe space for them to express themselves in other ways.
How often should art therapy sessions be conducted?
The frequency can vary based on individual needs. Some may benefit from weekly sessions, while others might prefer bi-weekly or monthly sessions.
As M.D. Rachel Naomi Remen has said, “The creative process and the healing process arise from a single source.” Art therapy activities for trauma can stimulate healing by tapping into a person’s creativity. A sense of freedom to express oneself through different artistic methods can have a lasting impact on their well-being.