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PTSD - How Does Creativity Help?

WARNING: this posting graphically discusses depression, suicide, and battlefield trauma.

We hear a lot about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nowadays, and not just related to things like participating in a war. It suddenly seems the whole world is suffering from it in some form or another, and that ubiquity makes me wonder how it affects our creativity as a species. I don’t know if we just recently have a name and recognition of PTSD, or if there is truly an epidemic. We are just beginning to understand the intricacies of the brain, a final frontier of sorts in understanding the human body, so I would guess it’s the former.

I suffered from bouts of depression throughout my teenage years, and by the time I’d had my second child at thirty-two, I was clearly in danger of not surviving. Suicidal urges began to plague me, and I was placed in a psychiatric ward for observation. This started a series of events that amounted to botched diagnoses, therapy and prescriptions, and I became terrified no one would be able to help me.

Luckily, my husband found a psychiatrist who had been a student of the famed doctor Karl Menninger, and I immediately felt like I was not only in competent hands, but understood. As I look back, the understanding part was really important to me, as up to that point, I had no confidence that anyone in the medical industry had an inkling of what I was experiencing. Some even thought I was over-dramatizing the situation, including my own parents!

After talking me down off the proverbial cliff, the doctor encouraged me to find something (besides my profession of playing the violin) that would engage me creatively. I began to journal and compose songs, and as my terror lessened, I was able to concentrate on creating something meaningful.

I grew up in a home where anger was forbidden, and when I think of the five members of my family, I probably had the most anger (although my father went through long depressions where he wouldn’t speak). And, I was also the angriest child, starting at an age where I wouldn’t have known the word anger. And since this emotion was not allowed, my anger had nowhere to go but guilt, which simply fueled the anger. Because, after all, what did I have to feel guilty about? It was, to say the least, an unhealthy cycle.

I tried holding that anger and guilt in for many years, until I simply couldn’t anymore, and it morphed in depression, intense headaches, and suicidal urges.

Pretty ugly stuff.

Childhood guilt, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder have now been documented to actually affect a part of the brain (the anterior insula), and shrink it, which can lead to depression and other emotional conditions later in life.

Over the next several years, the doctor helped me to see how I had gotten into this cyclone of negativity, and from there, creativity helped to do the rest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a struggle even forty some years later, and I need to be alert at all times to the emotional fallout of everyday life. But I know the warning signs, and I usually can deal with any threats. Plus, I have a family (a husband, four sons, and various in-laws) that I know have my back.

So all these years later, I am curious to know how PTSD and creativity interact. Drexel University in Philadelphia has teamed up with Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda to study how to help ex-military people with PTSD. (Video link:

They implemented a mask making program for people who couldn’t move on from their emotional wounds. These people don’t want to be seen as weak, so they typically won’t admit they need help. But family members, often the ones to get them into treatment, can see the evidence in front of them.

Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. They have recognized that PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in service members can’t be treated conventionally with measurable success, and so several solutions using creativity were tried - art, dance, music, writing, etc.

As it turns out, the left hemisphere of our brain (also the hemisphere that processes speech/language) is the one that cannot put the trauma into words, and the event becomes a sort of a “speechless terror”.

People who suffer from this try to avoid confronting it, as it’s too horrific and disturbing to even consider.

But….art doesn’t have to use speech, it can completely bypass that part of the brain, and this is apparently when the healing can begin to occur. Art making accesses the same sensory areas of the brain that control trauma (not speech), and after creating the work, words can be used to describe it, integrating the two parts of the brain (the one that controls trauma with the one that controls speech).

Here are some success stories from the program, as well as some of the resulting masks.

  • A serviceman saw a bloody face in the bunker he was in, which he nicknamed BFIB, and which might have been real or imagined. (It actually doesn’t matter, since it haunted him for years. It was plenty real to him.) He was able to think of it as outside his body and safe in the art therapy studio once he had expressed it in the artwork, resulting in seeing the flashbacks only a few times per year, as opposed to all the time. He and his therapist decided to further the process by putting BFIB in a box to contain it, and when he left therapy, he left BFIB behind. The trauma, now contained in the mask, has little power over the man.

  • A soldier who had to have part of his skull removed, and shrapnel taken out of his skin, integrated shrapnel and sand from the base into mixed media painting. He displayed this in a safe and meaningful way to describe his trauma, and his flashbacks became less intrusive. The mask must be tailored to the sufferer's experience and particular flashbacks in order to be effective.

  • A mask with a lock on the mouth indicates an inability to open up about this person’s experience.

Other symbols used by service members were a tattered American flag, grief, the Joker (from Batman).

In the human brain, the power to create is closely linked to the power to destroy, and therefore the part of the brain where trauma happens can also be part where healing happens. As we figure out how the brain works, how will this affect our creativity as a species?

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