Never heard of it? We delve into what it means, why it's more common than you think, and why art might just be the answer...
Do you binge-watch Netflix shows on the regular? Drink a little too much, a little too often? Are you always running late because you just can’t get out of bed? We feel you and have been there, so luckily you’re not alone. These ‘socially acceptable’ behaviours are something that we don’t often think too much about. However, these habits could be signs of unhealthy coping behaviour to deal with something that happened to you, or your parents, in the past – this is called Transgenerational Trauma. We chat with art therapist Buvenasvari Pragasam, MA, AThR (or ‘Buvi’ as she is known), to talk about how you can heal from trauma and live a healthier life through art therapy.
Transgenerational Trauma – what’s it all about?
Like us, you may not have delved into the psychotherapy behind traumatic experiences. Yet Buvi encourages everyone looking to form a new relationship, get married, or start a family to do just this. It’s like hitting a ‘reset button’ and preparing yourself for a big life change, starting with a mindful clean slate. But what even is trauma, anyway?
Types of Trauma:
1. Transgenerational aka Intergenerational Trauma
The human body is a miraculous thing. Our genes are passed on to us from our parents. Genes contain the genetic code that defines how we look and can also play a role in how we feel. Did you know that children of parents who have lived through highly stressful situations can be more prone to depression and can have a higher susceptibility to experiencing psychological struggles?
A study of Holocaust survivors discussed in this article by The Guardian indicates that post-traumatic stress can affect the cells in your body (including your reproductive cells). Genes can be altered in up to two generations of a family due to a highly stressful experience – and you can pass on this stress to your unborn baby.
2. Developmental Trauma
In addition to transgenerational trauma, there’s developmental trauma which refers to the impact of the early childhood traumatic experiences that affects the healthy attachment pattern. Developmental trauma includes loss of a loved one (caregivers, grandparents etc.), bullying, sexual abuse, neglect and much more. Such prolonged experiences of developmental trauma may have a lifelong impact if it has not been processed adequately.
Sounds a bit scary, right? We’re already suffering from parental guilt and hoping we’re doing right by our kids, and now we have to worry about our parents passing down their issues onto us and us onto our children… So then:
How do we overcome our own life experiences to ensure we minimise the impact our own stress has on our future kids?
It’s not all bad news! If your genes can be altered through traumatic experiences, it’s a relief to discover that they can also be altered through positive experiences, thanks to epigenetics. “Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviours and environmental factors can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.
Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.” Check our source – isn’t that amazing? So fret not; there is still hope to make things better, not just for yourself but for your children too.
How do we encourage these epigenetic changes?
You can heal from intergenerational trauma or developmental trauma by attending trauma-informed therapy. This can help you to develop healthy relational patterns and coping strategies. Attending therapy to process your own past traumas and transform unhealthy habits into healthy coping behaviours is a way of finding peace. And not just any therapy. Art therapy is one tool you can use to unlock those deep-seated experiences that you didn’t even know are affecting you today.
Why Art Therapy might help (and why it’s more than just pen and paper!)
Art therapy is a wonderful entry point into this world of self-care and healing. The major advantage is that we can address feelings of trauma without verbally talking about it. As Buvi explains, referencing Dr Bessel van der Kolk, “when someone experiences trauma, it affects the entire brain, but how each of us responds may be different. For some, the left side of the brain may be affected, and people may have difficulty verbalising what happened to them. For others, the right side of the brain may be affected where people may have difficulties regulating their emotions”.
“The body and the right side of the brain are responsible for holding traumatic memories. The person will respond to trauma cues in the environment. However, they won’t necessarily have a memory of where this (uncomfortable feeling) is coming from. All they know is that being touched a certain way or being in a certain place or certain smells trigger a feeling of “I don’t feel comfortable, I want to get out of this space, but I don’t know why”. Art therapy gently addresses these feelings and reveals the trauma through the processes of creating the artwork.”
Real-life experience: Jenny’s story
An art therapy session can involve traditional mediums like pens, paint and paper. There is also an opportunity for mixed medium artworks using all kinds of textures and materials. You just let your feelings take the lead. You can create whatever inspires you from the collection of items in the art room. Your creation can then be analysed to uncover what your psyche is gnawing on. The revelations can be surprising.
Art therapy client ‘Jenny’ came to her session wanting to work on her feelings of anxiety. She wanted to learn how to healthily manage her emotions. At her initial discussion, she didn’t mention that there had recently been deaths in her family. After six sessions, this unresolved grief surfaced. She created this picture of an old woman, which she linked to the passing of her grandmother.
Jenny shared that she was feeling pain in her throat as she was choking and controlling herself from crying. The art therapist encouraged her to cry it out, to release these long-held emotions. To help with finding closure, the therapist invited Jenny to create something for her grandmother. This could be as a gesture of appreciation for her or to seek forgiveness from her if she wanted to. Jenny was able to create a mini bouquet with some dried flowers. She laid this in a basket of fabric as her grandmother enjoyed sewing. Jenny shared that she felt a sense of relief, and her burden of grief was much lighter after the session.
Healing to live a more fulfilling life
Healing by facing your issues and addressing them in a healthy way means that some of the problems will resolve by themselves when you are no longer hanging on to trauma. Of course, there will be down times. However, as a healthy adult and with appropriate support, you can harness different coping strategies. This will help you to lead a healthier, more fulfilling life. Yes, you can still watch Netflix in your pj’s and enjoy a glass of wine. But it will be on your own terms and for enjoyment and fulfilment, not as a crutch to disguise a deeper pain.
Thank you to Buvi and the team at Solace Art Psychotherapy for contributing to this interview.