Number 38 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights art’s important role in processing our trauma…

Many thousands of years ago, when we were still living in caves, our brains and bodies had to react to threats extremely quickly. Most of us know of this reaction as the ‘flight-or-fight’ response.

If we didn’t react in this way, we would soon become a tasty treat for a giant bear. However, when our flight-or-fight response did kick in, we had a chance to live another day. If we got away, the physical exertion and exhilaration of having escaped would bring a sense of relief and pride, completing our trauma response.

Usually when we think of trauma we think of soldiers who have been through war or people who have experienced severe physical abuse. But anything the brain considers to be a physical or psychological threat, whether real or perceived, can be considered trauma.

Dara Gervais, Art Therapist

But these days it isn't necessarily a life-threatening situation that triggers our trauma response. It may be one big experience or it could be a series of little experiences. The real problem today is that we don't have chance to complete the our response. Without the release of physically fighting or fleeing, we hold on to our traumatic memories and emotions.

Art is both cerebral and visceral. It can create a powerful physical response in audiences and communicate emotional complexity without saying a word. So, could art be used by people who have experienced trauma to release some of these held emotions and memories?

Participants in a Paintings in Hospitals clay workshop at the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery

Research suggests that there is a strong link between creative practice and the improvement of trauma symptoms. As far as we know about the way the brain stores traumatic memories, there seems to be a shift during recording: from straightforward verbal and factual memory to emotional and sensory memory. This shift could explain why many people are unable to express their traumatic experiences verbally.

The sensory and expressive aspects of art-making have been seen to reconnect these fragmented and distorted memories, helping people to communicate, process and recover. That is not to say that trauma is in any way a prerequisite for artistic talent, more that the exploration of such experiences through art can help to communicate things for which there are literally no words.

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