How Drawing and Talking Works with Trauma
Traumatic memories are stored in parts of our brain which are not directly reached by talking alone. When our brains become overloaded they overflow and distress can become stored in other parts of our bodies which is why we often feel physical pain, discomfort and even experience ill health and relationship difficulties. Drawing is an activity which allows the deeper part of the brain to be involved, especially the right hand side where powerful emotional memories are stored visually; drawing and then talking allows both the visual right hand side and organisational left hand side of the brain to work together.
Why is it that talking alone doesn’t always help trauma survivors heal from their experiences? There are two possible explanations to this. The first is that, when a traumatic experience occurs, the left side of the brain shuts down and the right side processes.
An explanation of the brain’s functions.
The two sides of our brain work together most of the time. But they each have their own functions. The left side is designed for logical thinking, this is the side we use when we read, do mathematics and figure out logic problems. It has an orderly way of working. The right side of the brain is for creative and non-logical thinking. It’s where stories come from, music, art, poetry, and dance. It’s also where our memories of sound, touch, and smell are stored. When we react to non-verbal gestures, faces, voices, it’s because of the right brain functions.
Dr Bessel van der Kolk (2014) discusses memory and trauma research in his book ‘The Body keeps the score’; when scientists started doing functional magnetic resonance imaging they learned how the brain functions during activity. Researchers would ask trauma survivors to lie inside the machine and recall memories whilst observing which parts of the brain were stimulated. They found that the right side, especially in recalling traumatic memories, became activated whilst the left side totally shut down. As a result, trauma survivors cannot put into words or logic what happened to them fully. As Dr van der Kolk indicated, “In technical terms they are experiencing the loss of executive functioning.”
It is the right side of the brain which develops our relationships and according to David Hosier (2019) in his work on childhood trauma recovery, the right side of the brain involves our ability to empathise and identify with others, trust them, read emotions, form healthy, functional attachments and understand nonverbal communication. If traumatic memories reach the right side of a person’s brain, they may hinder these relationships which is why people who have experienced trauma have difficulty with social interactions and talking therapies. And so the second explanation is that people with traumatic memories can experience a reduction in their healthy interactions with others. When a person suffers from trauma, working with their right brain can lead to improvement in social interactions and relationships and therefore increases the likelihood that talking therapy will work.
What are the solutions?
Practitioners working with people suffering from trauma should focus on activities which are right brained in nature. Less talking and more doing is needed, activities which are art based, mark making (drawing painting etc.) scrapbooking, dancing, sewing, ceramics, drama and mindfulness practice, again drawing, visualisation, imagery, yoga, tai chi. Expressing to a person that it’s not their fault that they were abused or suffered trauma and upset only goes so far. Introducing therapy which primarily focuses on right brain activity whilst combining the left in order to construct their life story a little at a time can help someone to begin to feel like a whole person who can begin to look to the future with assurance and confidence. Giving children and adults ways to express their life experiences and share their story via art activities opens up new lines of communication (Birch, J. and Carmichael, D. 2009), (Makevit, 2011) in which they may portray themselves as an observer, the storyteller or possibly a character in a fantasy world. With a trained practitioner there to hold them through the experience and ask questions about the drawing, they can recall and then reshape the memory into one they can live with and can accept and they begin to move forward. Activities like Drawing and Talking help us to access memories in a safe environment, healing ourselves one step at a time.
Birch, J. and Carmichael, D. (2009) Using Drawings in Play: A Jungian Approach. Counselling Association Journal. Vol. 34. No.2. Spring 2009
Hosier,D. (2019) How childhood trauma can physically damage the developing brain (and how these effects can be reversed). Revised and expanded.
Makevit, S. (2011) Reverence for the Storyteller: The Tidal Model and Stories of Madness.
Van der Kolk, B.A (2014) The Body Keeps the Score; Mind, Brain and Body in the transformation of trauma. Penguin
The Right Brain and Healing Trauma March 14, 2019 Mental Health, Parents, Stress, Youth