Expressive Arts Therapy: Responding to Traumatic and Emotional Experiences

Feb 13, 2014 10:20 AM ET
Denise Boston

This essay was originally published in the Winter 2014 RSF Quarterly.

by Denise Boston

As a society, we have come a long way in the field of mental health over the past few decades. Improving the treatment and quality of life for individuals who live with serious mental illnesses as well as people who struggle with traumatic life events such as hunger and food insecurity, violence, cultural stigmatization, and social trauma, has been at the forefront of the work of many healing practitioners and therapists all over the world. The expressive arts therapy field specifically, has given increased attention to creative and liberatory approaches to health, wellness, and trauma intervention.

Expressive Arts Therapy (EXA) integrates a range of arts modalities in the service of mental health and self-actualization. EXA therapy practitioners have a wealth of aesthetic options to draw upon—music, visual arts, dance/movement, photography, creative writing, singing, storytelling, drama, poetry, and indigenous rituals. Through the creative process, clients and/or participants have the opportunity to explore and potentially transform emotional, social, and relational issues; identify patterns of personal success; and experience new and innovative insights.

Expressive arts therapists grounded in culturally sensitive and liberation psychological approaches—ones that aim to actively understand the psychology and social structures of oppressed communities—use the arts as a means of understanding and collaborating with children, youth, families, couples, and individuals dealing with varying degrees of threats that hinder self-actualization and a path to wholeness. Expressive arts processes in counseling and group therapy have been used in a variety of settings including, but not limited to, hospice, youth residential facilities, and homeless shelters.

One particular health challenge that therapists and counselors worldwide are currently being exposed to is emotional and psychological trauma. Environmental-contextual conditions such as chronic violence, bullying, human trafficking, abject poverty, war, and post-traumatic stress disorder, have necessitated an authentic and empathic therapeutic presence and practice with victimized populations and trauma survivors. An expressive arts-based approach has been effective in the treatment and intervention of trauma recovery, because an imaginative and creative process is a doorway into self-reflective inner work and self-empowerment. The body, mind, and in some cases, spiritual experience allow participants to articulate their feelings aesthetically when words are inaccessible and inadequate. Arts approaches used in the therapeutic setting are a powerful, sacred, and evocative tool for healing. The work of the therapist in this context is to increase hope and motivation, and create enough safety that the participants can become aware of their own agency and strengths.

In my work as an EXA educator and registered drama therapist, I have facilitated workshops and training sessions in collaboration with community-based service providers on the concept of arts, healing, and social consciousness. For more than a decade, my programmatic and research interests have been in the area of African American community mental health. African Americans are often at a socioeconomic disadvantage in terms of accessing mental health care and culturally sensitive counseling. Much of my work has been conducted collaboratively with community organizations and schools, and is aimed at promoting positive youth development by increasing cultural values and presenting an expressive arts caring approach for traumatized children and adolescents of African descent. The cultural-based research in the African American community has incorporated the use of drama, storytelling, dance, spoken word, and drumming to redress the disparities defined by historical trauma and the systematic loss of culture and self-identity. The data gathered through these projects have provided an important glimpse into the vulnerable and alienated voices of young people and the outcomes has indicated the positive and healing effects of expressing one’s truth.

A memorable moment, which demonstrates the power of arts-based intervention, is an experience I had with an 18-year-old African American man by the name of Kevin (not his real name), who had been trapped in the criminal justice system most of his life. He participated in an expressive arts workshop that I facilitated for males living in a residential group home in Arlington, VA. As they entered the arts room, the young men were welcomed to the setting with the music of Tupac Shakur, a famous rap artist at that time, as well large pieces of paper and an assortment of colorful art materials. I instructed the group to allow the lyrics and the rhythm of the music to inspire them to create a collage that represented their stories, thoughts, and dreams. At first, Kevin was reticent and skeptical of this unfamiliar situation and stood with his arms folded, disconnected from the group. I did not intercede, but kept an eye on him as I moved around the room checking on the progress of the other teens. He stood for a while listening to the music, and then something moved him. He picked up the large oil pastels and immersed himself in the creative process. Once he completed one collage he approached me and asked if he could do another. In the two and a half hour session, he had the opportunity to channel his anger, trauma, and loss into two powerful, provocative works that represented his story. At the conclusion of the session, Kevin rolled up his work and left the room a different person than who he was when he walked in. I stopped Kevin on his way out and shared with him how moved I was by his work. I wanted him to know “I see you”. We both shared a special transitional moment—never to see each other again. It is moments such as this that demonstrates the transformative and healing potential of the arts.

As a little girl growing up in Baltimore, MD, I loved using dance, music, reading, and dramatic play to express myself.  At the age of twelve, I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Bedridden with my knees filled with fluid, swollen, and painful to touch, I spent months in the hospital unable to be the energetic and vibrant child I was known to be. What I owe my recovery to was a supportive family and community, and my creative resources. I used movement and dance as my physical therapy to strengthen my inflamed limbs; and music to heal the sad places deep inside. It was from this traumatic childhood experience that I found my calling and a path to the creative exploratory process. I uncovered something profound within my spirit and my quest for optimal health and wellness, strengthened my love and compassion for others dealing with various aspects of pain and suffering.

I am appreciative of my arts-based practice and journey and will continue to use the arts with people who live within intersectional situations; race, gender, class and sexuality. This year, I have been invited to go back to my birthplace and to Washington, DC to promote the healing arts and provide training to mental health professionals working with children and families in traumatized environments. It is inspiring to connect with local people and plant the seeds of the arts in their promising communities and to imagine a thriving untraumatized world together.

Denise Boston, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Expressive Arts Therapy Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Dr. Boston was an actor and served as a director and drama teacher prior to her career as a psychology educator. Her arts-based teaching experience spans working with children, youth, families, and individuals in marginalized communities as well as at cultural centers such as the Kennedy Center, Baltimore School for the Arts, and Arena Stage-Living Stage Theatre Company. Dr. Boston received her BFA in Drama from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a MA in Counseling and Psychology from Goddard College, and a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Walden University. CIIS is an RSF borrower.