“Use your words,” we often say when we are uncertain of what someone is attempting to express, most likely amidst the tearful protestations of a child.
Overcome with emotion, the child stumbles over her words, most likely because her amygdala is activated, suppressing the parts of her brain required for speech and organization.
Yet, what does this statement, this command, truly demand of an individual? What does it assume? Most likely that we are capable of stringing together words no matter the situation or context. This example speaks to the primacy that verbal language occupies in our society. What happens when an individual momentarily loses the capacity to encapsulate their experiences through words? Or what if the individual, such as a child, has not developed the vocabulary or tools necessary in order to explain what has happened? This is often what occurs in the aftermath of trauma – we lose the ability to “use our words.”
I attended the Healing Through Storiez conference on May 5, 2018, organized by Dr. Meagan Corrado, the founder and creator of the Storiez trauma narrative intervention. The conference aimed to “support professionals from a wide range of backgrounds in identifying ways to creatively support traumatized youth in healing through narrative.” It consisted of keynote presentations, performances, testimonials and concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Corrado. Featured were speakers from a range of backgrounds: community arts organizers, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, art educators, and visual and performing artists.
What struck me as I listened to each speaker was the fundamental way in which the creative arts influenced their work, whether in fostering personal growth, providing opportunities for connection and creativity within a community, to express the unthinkable through images or song, or in helping others rebuild an integrated sense of self following trauma.
As Dr. Sandra Bloom, the first keynote speaker, highlighted in her presentation, the arts play a significant role when “language goes offline.” She advocates for further integration of the creative arts into healing from trauma, given the typically non-verbal means in which trauma is stored and coded in the body. When an individual has experienced the unspeakable, memories are encoded in sensorial fragments, through smells, images, and sounds, jumbled together in a way that makes no coherent sense. Rendered powerless, unable to control or predict what will happen in the environment, the individual has three options: fight, flight or freeze. Following the trauma, we engage in a process of reenactment, repeating our bodily responses to trauma in light of triggers or sensory reminders of the event that rendered us speechless.
What role do the arts play in healing from trauma? According to Dr. Corrado in her Storiez trauma narrative intervention, it can be crucial to utilize the creative arts, whether visual arts, music, dance, theater or poetry, to provide alternative avenues of expression for survivors. When words escape us, the arts enable us to express the ineffable, through line, color, intensity or shape. When we are able to piece together the disjointed fragments of an experience, moving from the emotionally charged amygdala towards the higher order functions of the prefrontal cortex, we begin to construct a narrative, a story, that helps us make sense of what happened. As Dr. Bloom stated in her presentation, “The construction of a biographical narrative helps the past become the past.” Stories become a “transformative conduit for healing,” to borrow from Dr. Corrado, allowing the individual to take ownership and control over what happened to them.
I came out of the conference feeling invigorated, armed with the knowledge that other disciplines were recognizing the importance of integrating the creative arts into healing from trauma, to bridge words with images, music and movement. Creativity can serve as an additional form of containment in crafting narratives of pain and suffering, which often also showcase resilience from adversity. Through creativity, we can reinterpret and reimagine the narratives we have woven for ourselves. With the understanding of how powerful the arts can be in constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing our stories, instead of “Use your words,” I wonder if it can be more aptly phrased as, “Show me.”