In recent months, we’ve heard quite a bit about the potential mental health benefits of adult coloring books. People have utilized things like mandalas as a means of stress-reduction for many years. Mandalas are square or circular designs with geometric shapes and the concept of mandala existed for many years in Eastern religions and has been used as a means of meditation, sometimes being seen as a microcosm of universal forces or the self. While some coloring books feature traditional mandala designs, others include illustrations of landscapes, animals, or words. For many survivors of trauma and abuse, creative and artistic outlets like coloring are an important aspect of emotional healing. Adult coloring books are just one example of the various creative pursuits that survivors use as a means of expression and escape. Those of us who work with survivors of domestic violence observe that individual journeys of healing tend to reflect both universal themes and uniquely personal elements. I spoke with several survivors who shared their own experiences on different aspects of creativity in the healing process. In listening to their experiences, it became apparent that people utilize creative activities in several different ways based on their personal needs and preferences. Artistic expression can be used to relax, to facilitate cathartic expression, as a means of distraction, or to create a place of emotional refuge. Whatever our personal relationship to trauma, there is a lot to learn from the insights and experiences of survivors who have integrated creative forms of healing into their lives.
Several women I spoke to shared that artistic activities have helped them find reprieve from racing thoughts or feeling “stuck” in negative emotions. Many people experience relief from stress or troubling thoughts simply because their energy and attention is diverted from their worries to an activity that requires a significant amount of focus . One woman I spoke to described how “getting lost” in her adult coloring book, music, and works of fiction have helped ease her stress during difficult times. She described these activities as an opportunity for relief from the time she spent focusing on her own distressing experience, saying that she was able to “lose track of time” and enjoy the experience of “envisioning different worlds.” Others echoed this sentiment, saying that creative activities served as not only a distraction from emotional stress and worry, but also as a way of reconnecting with joyous, fun, and imaginative parts of themselves. One woman described creative writing as the driving force behind her motivation to maintain optimism and hope. In addition to finding the motivation to pursue her personal and professional goals through writing, “I’ve also found myself” she says.
Many of us at ALIVE have heard women describe a similar phenomenon. Human beings naturally try to make sense of our environments and the events that happen to us. Understandably, traumatic and abusive events can be especially difficult to process. Many researchers and mental health professionals believe that traumatic events are so distressing in part because they violate “many of the basic assumptions people have about themselves and the world” including the belief that the world is generally predictable and the self is worthy . Survivors often cope with these philosophical implications of abuse while simultaneously coping with physiological effects. Many survivors experience intense anxiety and feelings of being “on high alert” because they’ve become accustomed to evaluating threats and “walking on eggshells” in an abusive environment. Transitioning from this state of high arousal to a more peaceful state of mind can be a difficult adjustment. One woman described physical activity as a way to enhance both her physical and mental health. For her and many others who have experienced abuse, gaining a sense of control over the connection between mental and physical well-being is an empowering experience. The woman I spoke to indicated that she has found unique and creative ways to make physical training a rewarding experience, saying that it has not only boosted her physical strength but has also helped her recognize that she is capable of doing “so much more than I thought I was capable of.” She describes this recognition as “exhilarating” and she has continued to draw from her sense of personal strength that comes from creative outlets as she continues her journey of personal growth.
In addition to being used as a means of distraction or escape, creative outlets can sometimes be utilized as a way of confronting difficult emotions head-on. One survivor described her love of writing and reading as a driving force behind her resilient spirit. “Writing has been a way for me to transfer my emotions into a beautiful work of art that left me proud” she explained, “it leaves me with a sense of pride and an everlasting memory of another obstacle I was bound to overcome.” Her experience reflects the power of using creative activities as an alternative medium within which to process trauma. Rather than making sense of traumatic events by talking about them in a typical conversational manner, mental health professionals like Dr. Nancy Gerber of Drexel University explain that artistic activities sometimes enable survivors to “deal with trauma in the same deeply emotional way that they experience it, which in turn prepares them to address it more fully” . Several of the individuals I spoke to shared that their creativity has helped them express themselves more fully and make sense of what they are feeling. They are able to explore both painful experiences and their own personal strengths through creative mediums. For many survivors, this can help foster a sense of integration of different parts of themselves. In trauma-focused counseling and support groups, people often find that over time, they feel less defined by the trauma they have been through. Many survivors express that although their experiences shape their perspectives, the experience of abuse does not define who they are as individuals. Some survivors choose to create paintings and drawings that show the timeline of their healing processes, or to write about the process of self-discovery. Others use creative outlets to become immersed in activities that are personally meaningful to them. Often, they find that creative outlets provide a means of exploring what their personal values and goals are. This can be helpful in envisioning a meaningful future that they can create for themselves as free and empowered human beings.
Some survivors say that creative activities have not only been a helpful way to increase self-awareness and process difficult emotions, but have also helped them to establish a sense of connection with others. Several researchers who investigate the process of healing from traumatic events have suggested that psychological trauma often leads to experiences of disempowerment and lack of connectedness with others . For many survivors, outlets for creative expression can serve as a way of regaining a sense of freedom, including the freedom to express themselves authentically and to be openly received by active listeners. One woman shared that she sees writing poetry and journaling as “a beautiful way to turn your pain into something others can relate to.” Within the context of abusive and traumatic situations, people are deprived of the loving acceptance and understanding that human beings tend to seek out. Using artistic mediums to relate to others who have had similar experiences is often allows survivors the chance to have those needs fulfilled. While some people choose to share their artistic expressions with many people, others choose to keep a smaller audience of trusted friends and family. For some, having only oneself as an audience can be a profound experience as well. One of the women I spoke to explained that writing has helped her on a personal level to recognize patterns in her moods and have a place to document feelings that can be difficult to cope with in other settings. Another survivor shared that “gaining a sense of knowledge (through reading and writing) has not only enriched my life but has also fostered development in my self-esteem.” As her sense of identity continued to grow and she gained confidence, she has also became motivated her to pursue a career as an educator and share her insights with others. Several women have expressed that their ability to help enrich the lives of others has been deeply meaningful for them. The process of creative and artistic expression offers endless methods of establishing intimate connections and sharing profound messages with others.
People who work with survivors of abuse have the opportunity to witness profound resiliency, insightfulness, and creativity. To me, part of the beauty in creative and artistic healing is that there’s no exact formula, no “right way” to do it. Rather, it’s an opportunity for individuals to utilize their own personal strengths to work through difficult times when they may not always feel strong. I would like to thank the women who took the time to share their personal thoughts and experiences about this process. Your insight is greatly appreciated and admired.
If you are a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault and need help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). For additional resources and information, try the following websites:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: http://www.ncadv.org/
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: http://www.thehotline.org
• For more information about Art Therapy: http://arttherapy.org/
• For more information about Mandalas: http://creatingmandalas.com
• Creative Projects by Survivors and Advocates: http://bigvoicepictures.com/blog/2015/12/11/the-creative-voice-in-healing-trauma-powerful-projects-by-survivors/
 “Coloring Isn’t Just for Kids. It Can Actually Help Adults Combat Stress” Huffington Post Arts and Culture. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/13/coloring-for-stress_n_5975832.html