Healing Through Art Therapy: A Creative Outlet When Words Fall ShortJul 03, 2022 09:13AM ● By Ann Marie O'Phelan
Kenzi (name changed) witnessed the traumatic loss of an immediate family member and was suffering from the typical signs often seen with traumatic grief: depression, anxiety, sleeping difficulties, tearfulness, exhaustion, decreased motivation, inability to focus, heightened startle response, emotional dysregulation, and dissociated feelings (disconnection). She was jumpy, suffering from nightmares, and experiencing anxiety, anger, and irritability. Her grief was compounded by a series of traumatic experiences from her previous career as an emergency room nurse.
In need of help, Kenzi contacted Fort Myers-based Florida Art Therapy Services. “Fortunately, she was extremely motivated to process through her grief; this proved to be a great strength,” says Alaina Loomis, art therapist at the Fort Myers-based counseling service.
Kenzi’s initial treatment included eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), one of the world’s leading trauma treatments, which allowed her to process her trauma in a slow, gentle manner.
Her treatment also included art therapy. “The artmaking provided a way for her to relax while offloading daily stresses, grief, and the aftereffects of experiencing trauma,” says Loomis.
Artmaking also helped her develop essential skills in the EMDR process, such as body scanning, which helps make the patient aware of physical body discomforts while processing difficult emotions.
Bilateral artmaking, a concept of EMDR art therapy, was also incorporated. While standing above a paper-covered table, Kenzi held one pastel in each hand and simultaneously drew images in a mirrored fashion. “This allowed her brain to process and heal maladaptive parts of her experiences, by stimulating each side of her brain and crossing the midline of her body,” explains Loomis.
Kenzi also created a “safe/calm place” using EMDR and reinforcing it through art therapy for a visual representation. “These interventions increased her confidence and sense of self while building her coping skills to assist in dealing with her grief and trauma,” says Loomis.
Another part of the treatment was an exploration of the survival response, known as “fight, flight, and freeze.” This helped Kenzi understand in a tangible way how her brain was reacting and functioning to the trauma.
After only two months of treatment, Kenzi was more emotionally regulated, felt less anxiety, and was calmer, less tearful, and more relaxed. She became engaged in community activities, personal artmaking, and taking time for herself. She also sets boundaries in her personal and professional life. “Kenzi reported a significant decrease in her dissociative symptoms, was more focused and present with others, and was motivated enough to move through many grief tasks, including making funeral and estate arrangements,” explains Loomis.
She also began attending to her own artist identity, which she had neglected for years. Most of all, her demeanor changed. She came to sessions smiling. “She still had elements of her grief and trauma left to work through, but her story offers a fine example of the power of art therapy and EMDR,” says Loomis.
Florida Art Therapy Services does its best to serve clients at their developmental level and clinical needs. Therapy sessions and interventions are structured according to the individual’s particular needs, abilities, and goals. “We may engage our clients in play-based or art therapy experientials to elicit therapeutic goals or objectives,” explains Florida Art Therapy owner and primary therapist Reina Lombardi.
Therapy may include learning to control breathing by making bubble breath paintings or stomping out ANTS (automatic negative thoughts) using images of ants (insect versions) and boots (replacement thoughts). For teens, art therapy might mean creating a journal using a handmade bookbinding technique or creating an inside/outside box where they display what parts of self are seen and what parts are hidden, ultimately creating a work of art to express and talk about feelings. For adults, art therapy might include making masks and discussing how the mask they wear reflects their connection to themselves and others.
“Artmaking is also an opportunity to express what can’t be articulated with words alone, a method of amplifying meaning-making, developing insight to one’s lived experience, and a means of practicing various coping skills,” says Lombardi.
Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and a regular contributor to TOTI Media.
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Florida Art Therapy Services
5272 Summerlin Commons Way, #602, Fort Myers