How Art Therapy Kickstarted My True Post-Trauma Healing

While talk therapy can be helpful for some, art therapy was what helped me focus on mental wellness.

Art therapy helping woman focus on mental wellness allanswart, chamillewhite, Olena Go, IL21 | Canva

In the mid-2010s, before it was as common as it is now, I was going to therapy. I guess you could say I was ahead of the curve. While my peers went to sports or band practice after school, I pretzeled my legs into the armchair across from my first therapist at 14 years old. Clinically sad with a head full of secrets for which I had no language, I struggled to share how I was feeling or what was happening in my life.


“You’re sick,” every clinician concluded when I said I wanted to die. No one would ask “why” or validate the sanity of my response to seemingly hopeless situations for years. Even if they did, there were no words. I was speechless and talk therapy wasn’t designed to hold space for that feeling.

My first encounter with art therapy

When I was about 20, I ended up in the hospital after the grief that comes with realizing I had a lot of childhood trauma crashed into me like a semi-truck. At that time, I wasn’t far enough on the other side of a terrible upbringing to know that it gets better. Life felt dark and bleak, devoid of light or color.


In the hospital, we had art therapy once a day. The art therapist was this tall middle-aged lady with thick glasses and a glorious halo of curls — a cross between Miss Frizzle and your neighborhood aging hippie in the best way.

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A perfectionist, I went to every group, including this one. Still, I didn’t want to participate. Although I’d always loved art, the idea of making it in front of people made me feel self-conscious. She promised me that it was OK and that I could write or observe if that made me feel more comfortable. In essence, she was the first therapist who encouraged me to listen to myself and told me that I could be trusted to make decisions for myself — even if they were as small as journaling privately instead of creating art in a group. Up until that point, every therapist listened to me spew my thoughts and told me what was wrong or defective about them.


Over the next few days, I went from journaling on my own to making simple drawings in the group to unleashing my feelings through art. Along the way, she encouraged me, but most importantly, she saw me in ways that no other treatment provider or person had before. That’s what she did with everyone. She saw people and listened to them and pointed out the good in what they were doing. It was a simple method, but it was more healing than all of the three-letter therapies I’d taken so far. After I left the hospital a few days later, I carried the goodness she instilled in me and continued making emotionally honest art.

Fast forward a few years

After that hospital stay, I returned to regular talk therapy. It was all that was available based on my location and insurance. Seeing a talk therapist who specialized in trauma avoided some of the pitfalls of talk therapy, like having someone ask stupid questions and expecting me to be all better after doing some deep breathing exercises. 

Still, I always told that therapist that I didn’t feel like she was as helpful as expressive arts therapy was for me. I think we both knew that her office was a holding space more than my final destination for healing. She did the best she could, but when she said that she was transitioning to another role and couldn’t see me anymore, I saw it as an opportunity more than an abandonment.

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Art therapy lets me go deeper

Once my old therapist let me go, I lucked out and found an art therapist who happened to be working on getting credentialed to take my insurance — a rarity in my area. During our first session, she didn’t have me recount my whole trauma history. Instead, she pointed me to the art supplies and gave a brief rundown of what a session could look like. Then, I set to work painting while she made art across from me, glancing at my process every so often. 

Though I painted cute, primitive ghosts, she noted that the process seemed muddy for me. Her comments made me feel seen. Getting some symbolic ghosts out of my head and onto a wood block loosened a weight from my shoulders, inexplicably. As a result, I went back two weeks later, ready to express myself. I could have technically painted on my own or drawn for self-discovery, but something about her commentary and observations tore down the defenses that had been up for so long that they felt like part of myself.

@art_therapy_irl Art therapy is useful for so many reasons. Many experiences are tough to put into words and sometimes it helpful to express ourselves in non-verbal ways. A trained art therapist can help you feel more comfortable processing emotions visually and using creative techniques to understand yourself. What ELSE do you want to know about art therapy? Ask me anything! 🎨 #arttherapy #mentalhealth #selfcare #foryou ♬ original sound - Art Therapy in Real Life

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Art therapy vs. talk therapy

When I went to talk therapy, I would leave feeling more wound up and invalidated than I did when I walked into that space. Even if my therapist heard what I was saying, there was always a disconnect between my narrative and their perspective of my life. They couldn’t see what was going on with me, so they brought their biases to the room.

In art therapy, I can draw trauma when it feels too hard to say. My therapist can point out patterns in imagery that seem insignificant until they come up with three drawings in a row. I walk away feeling like I got something off my chest like I restored a bit of my life force that the trauma took away. The pressure to talk or properly articulate unspeakable things is replaced with the freedom to share my experiences in a way that feels authentic to me. I don’t own the content of my stories when I draw them — I simply express them. Rather than saying “This happened to me,” I let the art speak for itself and say “This happened, period.”

In my experience, talk therapy kept me focused on the problem while art therapy allowed me to discover creative solutions to depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It might not be effective for everyone, but it is effective for me. Research shows that I’m not alone in finding expressive arts therapy helpful. While it might not be affordable or accessible to everyone, it’s worth giving a shot if you have the opportunity to do so.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse, you are not alone. 


Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and is not a reflection of who you are or anything you've done wrong. 

If you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233. If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474.

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Maya Strong is a writer who has spent the last six years blogging about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.