The Healing Power in Creative Self-Expression

When one is silenced and shunned by sexual assault, it is difficult to find one’s voice – especially if one was made to feel unworthy, disrespected, terrorized, and afraid, so what survivors can do and most end up doing is share their gifts, talents, love and beauty with the world. Tapping into their own creativity and finding expression through that medium is often what helps their recovery the most.

The experience of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse or other types of interpersonal violence, can ignite a complex set of reactions. Some of these reactions are physical reactions to trauma and increased nervous system response, some are emotional reactions to a highly distressing event, some are cognitive responses as survivors try to make sense of the event(s) that occurred, and some are social responses as they grapple with community attitudes and social norms around sexual assault. Because of the many layers of disruption involved, the healing benefits of art are diverse and apply to different aspects of wellness.

Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources, describes the experience: “The arts address the idea of an aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience is one in which the senses are operating at their peak, when you are present in the current moment, when you are resonating with the excitement of this thing that you are experiencing, when you are fully alive.” This experience is part of the enchantment that creative expression holds, the process connects us to our authentic self. Art can be the expression of our most inner selves, even of our souls.

Art can be a place to find relaxation and calm. It can also be used to release pain and unexpressed feelings. It is a way to reclaim what’s been lost or what’s been trapped, whether that is relaxation or safety or possibility or a sense of freedom. Using creative expression in healing has many benefits, which include:

Music engagement, which can include the passive experience of listening to music or the active experience of creating music, has been seen to have effectiveness in decreasing anxiety and tension, calming neural activity in the brain, and reducing heart and respiratory rates.

Visual arts. Engaging in visual expression has been linked to enhanced self-worth and identity through achievement, reduced stress, increased positive emotions, and decreased markers of emotional distress. It also results in a desire to continue in the healing process.

Movement, including formal, informal and free form dance, has been observed to contribute to a positive body image as well as increased self-awareness, problem solving abilities, self-esteem, and cognitive and psychological well-being.

Expressive writing, which can involve journaling, storytelling, free writing, poetry, or personal memoir, can improve control over pain, depressed mood, and pain severity. It can also positively affect anger expression, feelings of social support and other general quality of life measures.

According to Dr. Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH and Founder and President of The Foundation for Art and Healing, “Art allows you to do three things, and this is where the healing comes from. Art puts you in the moment, puts you in touch with yourself and allows you to bring forth something that did not exist before. And those three things taken together are incredibly powerful in terms of adjusting your understanding of yourself, your relationship to yourself, your relationship to the world and your sense about possibilities for the future.”

Creative expression has elements that are specifically relevant to integrating the experiences of sexual assault, domestic violence or child abuse. Survivors have had the experience of their voices being taken away. That feeling of invisibility is a response to the exposure to a set of events where it was not safe to voice one’s boundaries or needs. In some situations, it was not safe to have feelings at all. That lack of access to one’s inner voice can make a person feel disconnected and unmoored. The results of those feelings can be that a vision of a life where one’s feelings and thoughts and desires are honored and deserving of respect can seem out of reach. According to Cathy Salser, creating art can be the “first step in making something that seems impossible, tangible, visible. It can create the new future of respecting what you feel and think and want.”

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