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Treating Trauma with Expressive Arts Strategies

By Trynaty Thompson, LSW

How expressive arts use the brain, body, and imagination to facilitate the healing process.

What is Expressive arts therapy?

Expressive arts therapy is an integrative, multimodal approach that utilizes a variety of methods including writing, music, visual arts, drama, and dance to help people achieve personal growth.

5 Major Domains:

  1. Art Therapy

  2. Music Therapy

  3. Dance/Movement Therapy

  4. Poetry/Bibliotherapy

  5. Drama Therapy

What makes expressive arts therapies so effective?

The body’s response to trauma is physical. If treatment addresses the physical body, we find resolution and effective treatment. The phenomenon of embodied intelligence is what informs us of what we know and experience physically in our environments. In other words, when our brain processes our environment, do we feel safe? When individuals experience trauma (especially prolonged and consistent trauma), that ability is either shut off and they no longer receive communication from their body or sense their surroundings (dissociation), or their body begins to misinterpret cues and tells their brain there is danger even when there is not. Our body stores memories, emotions, self-awareness, awareness of others and our environments. Through expressive arts therapy, we can reintroduce the communication of body to mind and reconnect to the body when faced with memories, reactions, or sensations related to trauma in order to regulate. Expressive arts move beyond language limitations and allow us to provide more opportunity for communication and treatment where language fails or is not possible due to age, shame, guilt, or keeping oneself safe from retaliation for disclosing violence or abuse.

“Expressive arts therapy provides an opportunity for making meaning in ways that perhaps no other current approach to trauma integration offers. It offers a possibility not only to reauthor the dominant narrative of trauma events, but also to transform them into tangible, sensory-based expressions that have the potential of transcendence.” - Malchiodi


1. Letting the senses tell the story: Trauma is experienced on a sensory level. Memories of trauma are stored nonverbally and as sensory fragments. The expressive arts are inherently visual, tactile, olfactory, and auditory experiences. They access the right brain and implicit memory. If trauma is stored as a sensory reality, then we need to express and process implicit memory to successfully intervene and resolve trauma. Sensory expression through arts-based methods are reported to make exposure to trauma memories more tolerable meaning less avoidance of therapy and faster advancement of therapy in general.

2. Self-regulating mind and body: Individuals learn to separate themselves physically from what has happened to them. For example, visually-relaxing imagery like watching paint disperse in a cup of water, focusing on rhythms in music, or creating repetitive patterns when drawing allow a brief dissociation from anxiety or fear. When done purposefully and with intention, these techniques support self-regulation therefore allowing individuals to reduce hyperactivation of stress responses. Art therapy and mindfulness practices addressing the body can induce and deepen relaxation. Music therapy is known to reduce hyperarousal. These techniques help enhance feelings of safety more so than the use of words and allow emotional distancing from memories by exploring problems or distressing emotions through metaphor. We can separate what is going on internally from the more enjoyable creative experience.

3. Engaging the body: Our body stores memories, emotions, self-awareness, awareness of others and our environments. Anchoring and grounding techniques are based in using this principle for full body-mind integration and awareness. Studies show many individuals are reporting improvements in physical sensations related to trauma such as headaches, stomachaches, and insomnia as well as improved emotional and cognitive awareness. When individuals feel supported and safe in being reintroduced to their physical body as a safe place, they are able to heal and do not remain trapped in their trauma responses.

4. Enhancing non-verbal communication: Traditional psychotherapy is based on talking to alleviate stress and crisis and tells us that the best way to resolve trauma is through verbally describing the experience through recalling distressing memories. In contrast, those who survive trauma frequently report a lack of ability to put into words what their experience was. Creative self-expression allows a non-verbal way to break their silence, avoid “freeze” or shut-down responses, and tell their story without talking. Additionally, young children simply do not always have the verbal capacity to share their experiences and not addressing their trauma in childhood likely will lead to ineffective trauma responses as they get older.

5. Recovering self-efficacy: The goal of trauma therapy interventions is to take what happened and turn feelings associated with the past into focusing on the present. When individuals struggle to speak about what happened, they lose confidence in their ability to move on, leaving them with a sense of powerlessness. Expressive arts therapy is able to enhance resilience through regaining control of your body, which leads individuals to believe they can move on and meet future challenges with a better sense of self-efficacy and strength. Expressive arts are action-oriented approaches meaning that in their simplest form they involve arranging, touching, gluing, painting, listening, making sounds, physical movement, physical involvement, spatial awareness, and activate relationships with others and their environment. Participation in these activities leads to increased self-efficacy and empowerment.

6. Re-scripting the trauma narrative: The goal of expressive arts therapy is to help individuals change their trauma narratives. Drama therapy is especially useful in gradually restructuring, reframing, and revising the narrative they currently have. Using dramatic play or enactment can verbally rescript trauma stories as well as practice new behaviors that are out of their norm which leads to a corrective experience.

7. Imagining new meaning: Humans naturally want to make meaning out of everything. When working with trauma, meaning of past experience often comes when the body no longer feels taken over by distress because of the events in the past. When meaning making is successful, it often manifests into creative expression and a post-trauma identity of health, well-being, and inspiration. The trauma narrative shifts into the individual feeling altered, but not broken.

8. Restoring “aliveness”: Aliveness is the sense of vitality, joy, and connectedness in life. When therapy is successful, individuals no longer feel like they simply exist and survive after their trauma. Think of listening to a piece of music that gives you chills when you hear it. This comes from our brainstem increasing heart rate, breathing, and electrodermal skin conduction (chills). Expressive arts therapy is able to target this to restore joy and vitality in an individual’s life.

Links for activities to try:


Malchiodi, C. A. (2020). Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body and Imagination in the Healing Process. New York: Guilford Press.

Rogers, N. (1993). The creative connection: Expressive arts as healing. Palo Alto, Calif: Science & Behavior Books.


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