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trauma and creativity
By Bill Rossi, Merge Director
Since trauma creates tension that often feels unbearable, people have no choice but to find a release. A hallmark feature of trauma and other emotional disorders is the fight-or-flight syndrome, brought about by the intense feeling of being trapped. Another is helplessness leading to hopelessness.
People suffering from serious emotional disorders need intense, positive outlets for releasing and channeling overwhelming feelings such as these. Unfortunately, positive outlets are typically limited, especially on a consistent basis, so these emotions are usually expressed and energy released in negative and destructive ways.
A potent answer lies in the artistic mediums whose very essence is communication. Being able to express the truth, however difficult, is an important part of healing and finding a new direction. The arts allow for many different, positive ways of releasing and expressing without the stigma or concern of what is the right or wrong way to feel.
In fact, the more difficult it is to say the words about what hurt them, the more important it is to have other ways for children to express themselves and get their story told. – Joseph Benamati [Joseph Benamati, CSW, Parsons Child Trauma Study Center, Albany, NY.]
It is important to be in touch with all feelings and somehow express and communicate them, whether it is to oneself or to others. The arts can be very effective and in many cases may be necessary to help people tap into the real persons they are behind their defensiveness. Once they have done this and confronted difficult feelings they can reach through to their positive ones.
Of course that expression can be uncomfortable for everyone involved. I remember a meeting of child care workers and artists in which we were discussing an upcoming photography unit. As we began to discuss the range of emotional responses the students might experience during the classes and how to guide them, some of the child care workers became visibly nervous.
One of them expressed this discomfort by asking if they couldn’t just encourage the students to take nice pictures. We encounter this reaction fairly frequently, but it’s self-sabotaging. Any attempt to avoid, divert, or deny feelings – to specifically disallow people to express from an area that is meaningful and come to terms with what is really going on within themselves—will only lead to more difficulty . . . for everyone.
It's good for people in trouble to be around artists. You unravel a bit when you make art—it's like creating order out of chaos to make something unique. We artists have something in common with troubled kids. We also understand rage . . . artists aren't afraid of rage. – Katheryn Charbonneau, teacher
Expression that enables people to become proactively and positively self-directed to find meaningful resources within themselves provides a way to transcend difficulty and head towards normalcy and good emotional health. A person who is engrossed in playing music, painting a picture, or dancing, for example, can travel to another world where stress is alleviated, imagination is stimulated, good feeling is produced and new areas are discovered within – all-important ground where a person’s innate intelligence will thrive and where painful feelings can be processed and channeled. Strength and hope also have residence there.
Sam wouldn't be doing what he's doing without this arts program. It helps students step outside of the box, by which I mean go outside of routine ways of approaching situations so they can experience new horizons. This process and experience has helped Sam recognize that he has an appealing future, a future with possibilities that are meaningful and productive. Social Worker
Emotional turmoil can be a great creative spur. George Bernard Shaw wrote, If you can't get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance. Many artists, both professional and amateur, will attest that their involvement with the arts is necessary for their very survival because it gives them control and meaning in their lives, a reason for being, and an expression that keeps them going. The love of doing and creating is no small part of this, for where there is love there is healing. The following personal life experience of one of our former teachers provides a case in point.
Music is what I turned to: it was a lifeline to me. As a child it was a place I could go – I could play music and make sense of the world to a certain extent. I could find comfort there, I could find progression there. It helped me understand about going beyond certain feelings that I had about myself, or at least cope with certain traps that I might have felt in my environment. So it was important just to be involved in music whether it meant I was to be a professional musician or not. I could feel it in both my emotional state, my feelings, and I could feel it in my intellectual state. It made a lot of difficult feelings at least tolerable for me at that time.
And then as I grew I met other musicians. I found that this was a theme, and the creative process, whether it was music or art, had the same effects on other people. We’d share that with each other. As I got more involved in the teaching aspect I could clearly see how important involvement in the creative process was, not just for youth, but for anybody. I could see my students’ need for expression and how that could carry over. It could make them feel stronger and happier in other things, especially with kids who had more obvious difficulties. It’s something that I’ve grown with all my life.