Exploring Art Therapy & Trauma | Part 1


January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and The Art Therapy Project is honored to share with you some of the impact that art therapy has on the treatment for survivors of sexual trauma. In an effort to understand how art therapy can help access trauma and provide opportunities for self-transformation and recovery, we spoke with one of our art therapists, Val Koutmina ATR-BC, LCAT, who works with survivors of sexual trauma. The interview is split into a three part series. Here is the first part, which focuses on trauma.

What is trauma?

  • Trauma is any event that overwhelms survival systems or resources for coping and care. Traumatic experiences challenge one’s humanity, right to safety and trust in relationships. Trauma occurs when one is in imminent fear for one’s life or safety without the possibility of changing or escaping the situation. This includes participating in and witnessing violence.

What are the symptoms of trauma?

  • Trauma causes a fight, flight or freeze response, which are automatic responses that happen when one’s safety is being threatened. Symptoms can include sweaty palms, clenched stomach, or an urge to escape. Individuals tend to repress the memory of the event.

  • Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder include flashbacks, fear and anxiety, numbness or depressed mood, sleep disturbance, hypervigilant behavior, isolation and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.

Where is trauma stored in the brain?

  • A traumatic experience is stored in the limbic system, which processes emotions and sensations, but not language or speech. When people have been traumatized they may live with implicit memories of the traumatic event, but have few or no explicit memories or words to explain their feelings. Trauma can cause an overwhelmed limbic system and can impact the memory of the event and how the event is recalled.

What are the effects of trauma?

  • Individuals tend to repress the memory of a traumatic event. Trauma impacts one’s ability to regulate emotion, process pain, maintain attention, and form memories.

  • If the event is early or pre-verbal, it can impact how the brain develops. Processing and expressing feelings related to the event can become difficult. If the traumatic event happened when the individual was young, their defenses and coping strategies may remain reminiscent of adolescents or younger children. The protective behaviors of the past, which helped individuals survive the trauma, eventually become maladaptive or problematic in their later lives and relationships.


Part 2 will highlight how art therapy accesses trauma and how Val approaches each session. Stayed tuned!

All PostsMartha Dorn