Trauma and Art Therapy

By Talia Singer, Psychotherapist

The words trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are words that are being used a lot in mainstream conversations and the media, but what does it really mean? According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a collection of symptoms that include intrusive and recurrent thoughts and memories about a traumatic event (APA, 2013). Keep in mind that not all mental health professionals can diagnose a mental disorder, but a diagnosis is not always necessary to benefit from treatment.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis based on reaction to direct exposure to a traumatic event such as a motor vehicle accident, natural disaster, military experience, or witnessing a traumatic event (Santiago et al., 2013). The definition of trauma on the other hand, is a distressing and upsetting experience. The experience of trauma does not always lead to development of PTSD; in fact, most people do not develop PTSD (Paris, 2013). After getting through a distressing experience we are often left with upsetting thoughts, feelings and even dreams about the event, which may not necessarily lead to PTSD.

Art therapy can externalize these upsetting memories onto paper where they can be examined from a new perspective. Art making can transform this traumatic experience by helping you gain a sense of control and empowerment. Retelling your traumatic experience through paint, clay, paper and pen allows you to be the narrator and rewrite your story.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Paris, J. (2013) The intelligent clinician’s guide to the DSM-5. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Santiago, P. N., Ursano, R. J., Gray, C. L., Pynoos, R. S., Spiegel, D., Lewis-Fernandez, R., & … Fullerton, C. S. (2013). A systematic review of PTSD prevalence and trajectories in DSM-5 defined trauma exposed populations: Intentional and non-intentional traumatic events. Plos ONE, 8(4), 1–5.