A Guide to Art Therapy for Trauma

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Trauma is a mental disturbance that develops after an individual experiences a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. Examples include sexual abuse, violence, childhood neglect, natural disasters, car accidents, the death of a loved one, and war or combat. Trauma is often all-consuming, and it impacts every facet of a person’s life, including their career, relationships, self-esteem, sleep patterns, physical health, and ability to function in society. 

Trauma can cause PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or acute distress disorder. In many cases, it leads to other mental health issues, such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), codependency, eating disorders, or survivor’s guilt. Frequently, trauma also coincides with drug and alcohol addiction.

At Northbound Treatment, we thoroughly assess each of our clients to help them identify the cause of their substance abuse problems. This allows us to create a personalized treatment plan at our rehabilitation center that fits their unique needs. Many of our clients’ addictions are rooted in trauma, and art trauma therapy can be a highly beneficial component of a comprehensive recovery plan. 

What is art trauma therapy? In this detailed guide to art therapy for trauma, we’ll explain how the technique works, who can benefit from it, and what you should know about Northbound’s approach to art therapy.

Art Therapy and Trauma

Art therapy is a type of experiential therapy, which is a treatment model involving a range of exercises and activities. These activities encourage people to express themselves, get in touch with their creative sides, become more caring, socialize, spend time outdoors, be active, and cooperate with others. Art therapy, in particular, is an exceptionally beneficial type of experiential therapy. It can involve virtually any form of art or craft project.

Examples of arts therapy include:

  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Coloring
  • Journaling
  • Jewelry-making
  • Beadwork
  • Sewing
  • Pottery
  • Collaging
  • Photography
  • Filmmaking
  • Acting

Arts therapy helps people express themselves without having to verbalize their emotions. With the guidance of a psychotherapist, individuals often create expressive art portraying their thoughts and feelings. For many, this creative outlet is a vital component of healing trauma.

When someone experiences a traumatic occurrence, they’ll often relive it through recurring flashbacks and disturbing thoughts — which is sometimes diagnosed as PTSD. These frightening thoughts and memories are difficult for some clients to express in talk therapy, which is why art therapy for trauma is so useful as a supplemental treatment.

Additionally, traumatic memories aren’t always accessible by the conscious part of a person’s mind. And yet, experiential exercises such as art therapy allow them to access the trauma they weren’t able to previously. As a result, patients are often able to get to the root of their psychological turmoil and substance abuse issues and ultimately release the trauma. Other experiential therapies include role-playing, music, animal care, outdoor recreation, and guided imagery.

Aside from trauma, art therapy can be an effective supplemental treatment technique for a variety of mental health disorders. It’s commonly used to treat those suffering from depression, panic disorder, OCD, anxiety, grief, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and anger issues.

Trauma-Informed Art Therapy

Trauma can affect anyone regardless of their age, gender, income, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. As we mentioned, it impacts a person’s life and those around them, including their family, friends, romantic relationships, community, and clinical care providers. When left untreated, the lasting effects of trauma can be devastating.

Trauma-informed care is a relatively new approach to trauma treatment. It applies an organizational framework to trauma therapy and is guided by recognition and understanding of the nature of trauma. Through this framework, trauma-informed care can effectively address trauma and heal those who suffer from it.

In addition, trauma-informed care focuses on offering emotional, psychological, and physical safety not only to patients but also to providers, families, and anyone else involved in a person’s trauma recovery. As a result, trauma survivors are empowered, have a sense of control over their treatment, and aren’t at risk for retraumatization.

The six principles of trauma-informed care include:

  1. Safety: Ensures safety for clients, clinicians, and treatment centers as a whole by fostering a physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe space for healing.
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency: Operates under a trusting, transparent framework with the goal of developing and maintaining the trust of patients, clinical staff, and anyone else involved with the organization or a patient’s recovery.
  3. Peer Support: Builds on trustworthiness and safety while promoting collaboration and encouraging individuals to share their experiences with their peers (other trauma survivors).
  4. Collaboration and Mutuality: Aims to equalize power differences among clients, care providers, staff, and administrators of an organization to underscore the idea that everyone plays a crucial role in trauma treatment and that healing can only occur when power is shared in the decision-making process.
  5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice: Acknowledges a patient’s experiences and builds upon their strengths to foster empowerment and resilience while coming to terms with the ways in which the voices of trauma survivors have historically been diminished in treatment programs.
  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues: Requires an organization to move beyond stereotypes and biases and incorporate processes that effectively respond to the cultural, racial, and gender-specific needs of those being treated while acknowledging and addressing historical trauma.

The trauma-informed treatment approach can be applied to art therapy. Within a safe, transparent, trustworthy, supportive, collaborative, empowering, and culturally sensitive environment, clients can express their feelings through art. Art therapy and other experiential activities help individuals face their psychological disturbances, gain a sense of command, and eventually recover from their distress.

Trauma Therapy from Northbound Treatment Services

Northbound Treatment has been offering addiction treatment for over 30 years, and we’re proud to provide numerous psychotherapy and counseling services as part of our mental health programs. This includes a variety of experiential therapy activities, such as art therapy for trauma. We support our clients in their individual paths to recovery by offering detox and residential rehab, as well as outpatient treatment programs for those struggling with mental health disorders and substance abuse.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Art therapy and other experiential treatments support clients who suffer from trauma in addition to drug and alcohol addiction or substance abuse disorder. This is referred to as a dual diagnosis (or co-occurring disorder) and is addressed with an integrated treatment plan at Northbound. Our dual diagnosis programs address addiction and trauma simultaneously, which tends to be more effective than treating them individually.

With dual diagnosis treatment, clients have the tools and support they need to manage and overcome their co-occurring conditions. Ultimately, they’re able to get to the root of their psychological distress, achieve sobriety, discover themselves, and live free of their trauma.

A Multifaceted Approach to Trauma

At Northbound Treatment, we apply a multifaceted approach to trauma therapy. By combining art therapy and other experiential therapies with individual and group sessions, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other forms of psychotherapy, we help survivors heal from trauma.

Additionally, Northbound utilizes a variety of esteem-building exercises, such as personal growth activities, life-skill building, relaxation techniques, and outdoor recreation. We strive to include substantial outdoor time as part of our treatment programs. Research has shown that sunlight, fresh air, and physical activity support mental and emotional wellbeing. Our multifaceted approach to trauma helps clients cope with their psychological issues without the need for drugs or alcohol.

In some cases, we might prescribe medication as part of a trauma therapy plan. That being said, Northbound’s philosophy is to limit the use of medications unless they’re absolutely necessary to treat a condition. Furthermore, we work with psychiatric referrals to determine whether an individual needs medication and which may be most beneficial for their recovery. 

There is no better time than now to start treatment. Northbound admits new clients every day, and we encourage you to join one of our programs in Orange County, California or get support virtually with our telehealth outpatient program. We take all major insurance plans and are dedicated to making trauma and substance abuse treatment accessible to everyone. We’ll work with you to find a payment plan that fits your needs and abilities.

Contact us today for more information about art therapy for trauma and other dual diagnosis treatment techniques we use. To start your journey to recovery, fill out our online form or call (844) 919-0403.

For more information, check out our blogs on Accelerated Resolution Therapy and What is EMDR Therapy & How Does It Work?


  1. Li, Xingyi. “(PDF) Treating Complex Trauma with Art Therapy from a Neurobiological Viewpoint.” ResearchGate, Jan. 2015, www.researchgate.net/publication/272157031_Treating_Complex_Trauma_with_Art_Therapy_from_a_Neurobiological_Viewpoint., https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272157031_Treating_Complex_Trauma_with_Art_Therapy_from_a_Neurobiological_Viewpoint
  2. Fabian, Reneé. “How Art Therapy Can Heal PTSD.” Healthline.com. N.p., 23 May 2017., https://www.healthline.com/health/art-therapy-for-ptsd#1
  3. Malchiodi, Cathy. “Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy.” Psychology Today 6 Mar. 2012., https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/arts-and-health/201203/trauma-informed-expressive-arts-therapy

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