The arts provide time-tested techniques for recovering from the stresses and wounds of trauma. Through the arts we access and process our emotions, both individually and collectively. For longer than recorded history, art has been part of human negotiation of life experiences—more of a sacred rite than a spectacle or commodity. In this article I discuss how art functions to support trauma healing while describing my experiences with particular arts-based trauma healing projects.
Healing properties of art
In order to begin healing from traumatic events, we need to reach a sense of safety and stability. We need to stop the harm, examine and clean the wound and provide conditions under which we can heal from the deep pain of trauma. We possess an amazing ability to cope when the pain is too great, but coping is an emergency instinct, not a long-term solution. The arts can offer a sense of security by temporarily transporting us to a ritual world that transcends pain and fear. Sharing art with others also reconnects us to sources of support and security in our communities.
Dissociation and other coping mechanisms inhibit emotions, sensory processing and memory functions so that we can continue basic daily functions needed to survive. Traumatic events remain emblazoned in memory, yet our brains can block these memories and leave us feeling distant and disconnected. Simply acknowledging a traumatic experience can be a powerful step toward healing.
The process of finding the roots of our stress often requires deep self reflection and soul-searching. The arts support this process by stimulating and integrating numerous regions of the brain simultaneously. Memory is linked to senses and emotions. Creating art is like coming home to oneself: it incorporates body, mind and spirit so we can access and address hidden emotional wounds.
The arts help us to engage our emotions and to relish what these emotions teach us. Art calls us back to our bodies and invites the most difficult emotions into the open where they can be examined. Art invites us to play with what we most fear. Poetry, in particular, allows the imagination to weave words together with feelings. Likewise, visual arts employ symbols, colors and textures to integrate aesthetics with rational thinking. Music, too, uses non-verbal expressions through rhythm, melody and sound to engage not only the mind, but also the body. This kind of holistic coordination is inherent in the expressive arts.
The arts can thus be extremely therapeutic. They can help us mourn—and celebrate—by expressing things viscerally. Thus art, music, movement and drama therapies have all become effective tools for practitioners working with traumatized individuals and communities to engage brains and bodies in regenerative processes.
Healing through song
For me, songwriting is therapeutic. When I release inhibitions, I allow emotions to find voice. The best songs come with minimal conscious interference. While the logical, rational and literal brain functions are aware and active, they allow the body, spirit and environment to lead. Various programs enable those suffering with post-traumatic stress to use songwriting as part of their healing. In some programs, military veterans or inmates use their musical abilities to write songs or partner with professional songwriters to collaborate on compositions. Other programs, such as playback theater, involve artists listening to stories of traumatized persons, and then offering those stories back to them in art forms, allowing them to view their stories from different perspectives. I have experimented with playback songwriting. One song, “Hole in Her Heart,” represents my mother’s story of grieving following my father’s death.
Healing through storytelling
Traditional cultures recognize the need for community support and provide rituals to bring individuals back into the community after traumatic events. Such rituals offer safety, belonging, permission to mourn, mentoring, accompaniment and meaning-making structures. Storytelling is one such ritual.
Storytelling is an ancient way to communicate both positive and negative experiences. Recounting our narratives is an important part of navigating the trauma landscape. Sharing painful stories is difficult, but it can bring validation when we feel heard and honored. Story sharing fosters a sense of connection between the protagonist and empathetic listeners. The telling and retelling of our stories can also be self-revelatory.
Music-making can be a form of corporate storytelling. Singing or drumming together creates and strengthens bonds among participants in music therapy groups. Creating music in collaboration calls for participants to engage personally and communally in the music: stating an idea, listening to the ideas of others and responding to each other, be it in unison, harmony or countermelody, expressing either dissonance or consonance. Through such collaboration, we model and practice desirable relationships.
Gradually, the stories we hold for ourselves make more and more sense to us as we regenerate our narratives. Storytelling through the arts helps us finds new meaning for the past, within the present and the imaginable future. Through art we reimagine and reintegrate worlds fractured by trauma and in the process we grow more resilient. As pain subsides, we can turn our attention beyond ourselves and perhaps support others on their journeys.
Art and resilience
My own commitments to the arts and to trauma healing converged in my involvement with the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program in Haiti, known in Creole as Wozo. Wozo is a reed that grows wild throughout the island. It offers a wonderful metaphor for resilience. Haitians say that wozo can be knocked over by wind or flood, yet still right itself; wozo can be broken off, yet a new shoot will grow; wozo can be cut down to the ground and burned, yet come back stronger than ever. A Haitian proverb captures this resilience: “We are wozo. We bend, but we do not break.”
With support from MCC, STAR-Wozo began in Haiti after the earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. Jhimy St. Louis, a participant in a Wozo seminar I attended, composed a poem about Haitian resilience that he recited on the final day. He and others encouraged me to set the poem to music. The resulting song, “We are Wozo,” has become important in my collaborations with colleague Frances Crowhill Miller. (Listen: sopasol.com/music)
Frances and I, as Sopa Sol, are currently offering a project called Wozo—Songs of Resilience, in which we explore the journey from trauma to recovery through our stories and songs. Each presentation includes space for participants to enter in through their own stories of trauma and resilience. The project is customized for each group of participants and is continually transformed by the feedback we receive. This confluence of songwriting and trauma healing work seems to be an ongoing part of my story, and I am eager to find out where it will lead.
Daryl Snider is a songwriter and a graduate of Eastern Mennonite
University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.