Art Therapy and PTSD


After experiencing a traumatic event, people are often diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

People can experience the symptoms of PTSD after a number of traumatic events, ranging from sexual assault to surviving a natural disaster. After living through this kind of trauma, people can find it difficult to articulate what is bothering them. One of the main presenting symptoms of PTSD is reliving the trauma through flashbacks. Art therapists work with patients to work through their experiences and come to terms with the pain they have lived through.

PTSD: What is it and what are the Symptoms?

At points in everyone’s life, negative or unpleasant experiences can impact how you feel for the rest of the day or days to follow. When you experience something particularly traumatic, however, and experience the impact of it in the months after, you could potentially be suffering from PTSD. Women, children under age 10, and war veterans are most at risk for developing it. However, living through a traumatic event does not necessarily mean that you will experience PTSD.

Common symptoms include:

  • Recurrent, disturbing memories of the event
  • Feeling as if you are reliving the event
  • Bad dreams
  • Negative feelings about yourself or others
  • Feeling numb emotionally
  • A sense of hopelessness
  • Self-destructive behavior

The behavior needs to last more than a month to be characterized as PTSD as opposed to acute stress disorder. Obsessive compulsive disorder is also characterized by recurring imagery, but does not relate back to a specific traumatic event.

Traditional Treatment

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has shown to be effective in treating patients with PTSD. CBT works by changing how the victim feels and acts by changing patterns of thoughts or behaviors responsible for the negative emotions. Patients learn to replace the negative thoughts with ones that are less distressing. A function of this form of therapy involves exposing patients slowly to what is causing the recurring problem, until they can accept it (known as exposure). CBT is an effective treatment for many mental illnesses and has been shown to work for PTSD. It can be also used in conjunction with art therapy. Many medications, including antidepressants, can be prescribed as treatment, but have more varied results.

Art Therapy as Treatment

Domestic violence and sexual assault centers often have art therapists on staff to help victims process the trauma that happened to them. The traumatic memories that play the largest role in flashbacks are encoded in non-verbal areas of the brain. This makes them difficult to talk about. Because of this, making art can make the victim feel confident and empowered. Though they may not be able to articulate exactly how they are feeling, they can still express themselves through their art. Art therapy creates a safe space for victims to venture into darker places. Survivors can choose the method of art they would like to employ (crayons, markers, paint, etc.) which gives them control of the situation.