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Creativity and Trauma - 1/5

In the first of our Friday Focus series, Sarah Van Gogh will be exploring the role of creativity in trauma work. Over the next four weeks, she will show how helping traumatised clients to express themselves imaginatively increases their capacity to process un-integrated experiences. Today, she introduces this ‘third way’ of working with trauma, which neither risks destabilisation on the one hand, or superficial engagement on the other. On subsequent Fridays, she will use fictionalised case vignettes to illustrate how working with music, poetry or the client’s own imaginings can unfold in practice.

 

“If you bring forth that which is within you, then that which is within you will save you.

If you do not bring forth that which is within you, then that which is within you will destroy you” (The Gospel of Thomas)

This blog and the four that follow it, in a series throughout April, will aim to explore how fostering a client’s ability to give expression to their imagination can greatly enhance the extent to which they can tolerate the working through and integrating of traumatic experiences.   

We are fortunate as therapists to be working at a time when there is such a rich body of knowledge available to us, through ever more sophisticated research on the human brain and nervous system, about how trauma impacts the functioning of our bodies’ regulatory systems. And such research has helped confirm that, as therapeutic practitioners, we must be cautious about working too quickly with techniques that encourage an exploration of what is deeply unconscious with clients who are carrying unresolved trauma.

We now have a better understanding of the effects of trauma than we did 20 years ago. When a person has had to seal off shatteringly painful experiences into unconsciousness, they are often not helped by therapists encouraging them to reconnect overtly with those past experiences. Such a direct approach can leave a client overwhelmed.

But for clients who have been left with profound trauma that has had to go unconscious, it seems hard that they should be denied therapy that works at depth, for fear that it will destabilise what ego-function they have. It is surely not right that some of the most wounded, troubled and emotionally/psychologically scarred individuals in our communities tend to be only offered drug treatments, urgent admittance to hospital for short-term crisis management, or somewhat superficial therapeutic techniques that are aimed at improving their cognitive function, in a top-down style, using mostly short term, solution-focused approaches.

There is a different treatment path; and this includes a therapist using strategies that foster ways to reconnect with past trauma but which do not run a high risk of destabilising vulnerable clients who have poor ego-strength, even in relatively short therapy time-frames. And that path is, I think, intimately linked to a capacity to use the imagination.

Imagination gives traumatised clients the freedom to say, “This is not about me, this is about....” It allows them to express something that is, in effect, a metaphor for their painful experience. Via the creative expression of what they have imagined, they are often then able to discover vital new insights into – and acceptance of – their own experiences.

It is this third way of working, that neither requires a client to speak directly of their trauma, nor risks leaving too much of their trauma out of the work, that many in the therapeutic professions are now focusing on. I hope the four brief clinical vignettes that I will begin offering next week, will give brief snapshots of a type of gentle fostering of creativity and how this allows for traumatising experiences of many kinds to be gradually brought more into consciousness. I have fictionalised and anonymised all the short case study examples, to protect client confidentiality, yet they are true to the essence of what I have witnessed in the consulting room, and to the innate creativity of many clients I have worked with, over many years.

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Sarah Van Gogh

Before training as a counsellor 20 years ago, Sarah worked in the fields of Theatre-in-Education and community health outreach. She now works in private practice, and is one of the trainers on the counselling diploma at the Re-Vision Centre in London.

She also worked for 7 years as a counsellor and trainer at Survivors UK, a service for men who have experienced sexual violation. Her book Helping Male Survivors of Sexual Violation to Recover – Stories From Therapy was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2018. She is the co-editor with Chris Robertson of Transformation in Troubled Times published by TransPersonal Press in 2018. She writes a regular column for the BACP Private Practice Journal.

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