In January 2011, a 9mm bullet, fired point-blank from the gun of a mentally ill assailant, passed through the left rear of Gabrielle Giffords's head and exited just over her left eye. The Arizona congresswoman, who had been meeting with constituents in front of a supermarket near Tucson, would survive—despite massive trauma to the left side of her brain, the regions that control vision, movement, and speech. After surgery and intensive therapy, some 10 months later Giffords could respond to TV journalist Diane Sawyer's interview questions with mostly one-word answers—yet she could sing all the lyrics of "Tomorrow" from the Broadway show "Annie." Struggling to find language, she would call a chair a "spoon," but she could belt out all the words to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." It was music that helped pave a road back to speech, and it was music that—in the form of a guitar-strumming therapist by her side to help organize her movements—even supported Giffords's steps as she relearned how to walk.
In a brand of health care that dovetails with the beaux arts (think "doctor turned artiste"), creative arts therapies are cropping up everywhere these days, from hospitals and rehab centers to group therapy and workshop settings. Expressive arts such as music, drama, dance, writing, and the visual arts have a wide range of applications and can be tailored to help people with such diverse diagnoses as autism, anorexia, and post-traumatic stress. Music therapy in particular has some solid research behind it: The neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about his studies on the subject in Musicophilia (Vintage Books, 2008), a book that brims with Sacks's remarkable experiences with patients whose relationship to music deepened after being struck by lightning, or while coping with diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Scientists have long suggested that while language is largely held in the left side of the brain, music activates regions in both hemispheres, as well as areas deep within the brain that hold memory and emotion. That's why song lyrics can act like a superhighway (or a bumpy country road, as the case may be), connecting music and speech for people suffering from stroke, dementia, or brain injuries like Giffords's. It is this unique "whole brain" approach that makes music, and perhaps some of the other expressive arts too, so richly promising therapeutically.
Healing the Hurt Psyche with Drama and Song
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk—a renowned trauma expert and author of several books, including The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Treatment of Trauma (Viking, 2014)—contends that drama, song, writing, and other expressive activities are more effective than talk therapy. "We're always looking for new ways of opening in the dark. Traditional therapy doesn't always do that; it clamps people down and makes them behave," says the Dutch-born and Boston-based doctor, who is leading an experiential workshop at the Garrison Institute from April 29 to May 2 for health professionals, artists, and anyone interested in exploring the healing of traumatic stress through acting, songwriting, movement, and other modalities. "This is about people opening up and being free to feel what they feel and know what they know. It's allowing yourself to feel your body, hear your voice, and speak your truth." For people recovering from trauma, this is a radical departure from their usual experience. "The issue with trauma is that you're not allowed to feel what you feel because it's too dangerous," explains van der Kolk. "It's overwhelming—it's too much to know that you've been raped, or you've been beaten by people who are supposed to care for you. To actually find your voice is an act of assertion, and, in a way, of defiance. Doing this through song is an age-old tradition. The civil rights movement was founded on people singing 'We Shall Overcome'; music has always been an important part of people asserting their reality."
Part of what makes group arts like dance, drama, and song so powerful is that they are "synchronized" activities—they help people to be in synch with themselves and others. "The function of our brain is to be in synch with each other. When you get traumatized you get frozen; you get stuck in hyper-arousal. You lose this synchronicity to yourself and to people around you," says van der Kolk. "For veterans, their brains and bodies have changed from being in gear with fighting wars and killing people. When they come home they're out of synch with other people. It's a deep internal feeling of alienation, of being godforsaken, that people don't get me." One of his favorite synchronized activities for trauma survivors is theater: The workshop at the Garrison Institute will include a program called the Feast of Crispian, which teaches post-deployment service vets how to play roles in a Shakespeare play. "It's people moving together, adjusting their bodies to each other in the play situation. They rediscover how to be in synch after dealing with horrendous things."
When it comes to getting in synch with yourself, there's a specific area of the brain dedicated to just that: It's called the default mode network. Van der Kolk describes it cognitively as "this feeling of knowing yourself, feeling good about yourself; it's that self-loving, self-aware part of yourself." For those who have experienced trauma, the brain's hub for self-compassion can get knocked out, and people can become consumed with worry, anxiety, and self-hate. Yet with what we know now about neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to rewire itself and create new connections—it's possible to bring the default mode network back on track. "Experience changes the brain," says van der Kolk. "Yakking doesn't necessarily change the brain, but actually doing something that helps your brain to have a different reality and to live in a different space—this changes the neural connections." Drama in particular involves having to change and adapt yourself, "to imagine what it feels like to be a hunchback or an elegant woman or a soldier," says van der Kolk. "You embody new possibilities, so you become a more open and resourceful person. More imaginative. If you have a shut-down imagination, then you have nowhere to go. Imagination is everything."
Dancing into Your Greatest Potential
The therapeutic dividends of the expressive arts can extend to just about everyone; not just people with a diagnosis will benefit. That's why Theresa Haney, a Red Hook–based creative arts therapist, has expanded her practice to cater to the general public. "I'm trying to create an environment where you don't have to have something wrong with you to get better," says Haney, who spent 12 years supervising the creative arts therapy program for Bronx Lebanon Hospital's child and adolescent psychiatric unit; later, she moved upstate and built a thriving practice working with children on the autism spectrum. At the Izlind Integrative Wellness Center & Institute of Rhinebeck, Haney is offering three creative arts therapy workshops that will begin in mid-March: "Passion & Purpose " for twentysomethings, "Align & Shine" for ages 30–59, and "Ageless Wisdom" for ages 60-plus. "This is the kind of work that I would want, so I'm sure other people do too," says Haney. "It's all about personal growth and self-care, so people can feel better about themselves and really thrive."
Before she became a creative arts therapist Haney was a dancer, so movement figures largely in her work, which also incorporates art, music, drama, and creative writing. Dance, Haney finds, is a perfect way to begin: "You get people in their body and their whole world changes. They have more access to their emotions when they move their body." Rhythmic synchrony—people moving in rhythm together—is probably dance therapy's most powerful tool, she says. "It breaks down the barriers to communication, and it helps people find connection without words, building trust and a sense of belonging." This is intimate work, and Haney is careful not to take people out of their comfort zone. If she's working with a group that is self-conscious, the movements might start simple, such as walking in a line together. Particularly with older groups, inhibition is not a problem ("55 and over, they're like, let's groove it!").
Each session is different, and Haney takes cues from the people around her to see what direction they'll take. After some movement to get the juices flowing, the group might sit down and have a conversation, or they might move into drawing or drama. With drama, Haney will often call up one of her biggest influences, the Law of Attraction, which is based on the premise that "what we think about and what we focus on, whether we're conscious of it or not, tends to become our experience." She might ask each person in the group what they'd like to see happen in their lives, and then invite them to act it out as if it's already happened. It's about getting clarity on what you want, and then letting it go with a kind of radical trust—an understanding that "the universe is going to provide me with something even greater than I can imagine, and I can't wait to see what it is," says Haney. She's seen this shift in mindset have transformative effects. "When you focus on health, you get more health. It's the idea that you can't fix a problem with the same mind that created it. So let's talk about what's working in your life and expand on that." Recruiting the power of imagination and visualization, participants can become artist-creators of their own lives.
The Gift of Getting in Synch
With the creative arts de-emphasized in our public schools, where kids' performance on tests is deemed more important than theater and music and movement, there's a real risk that these forms are fading from our culture. Yet nothing can quite replace the sense of connection they bring. "When I grew up, everybody sang," says van der Kolk. "Kids sang, families sang. Part of what singing and other synchronized activities do for people is that you cannot help but giggle and laugh. Synchrony equals joy. You get a sense of pleasure and joy as you try to sing a piece of music together, or try to harmonize. There's a sense of relaxation when you get in synch with other people around you. That, of course, gets destroyed when people get upset and frightened, so you want to reintroduce that capacity that's built in all of us, that synchrony equals pleasure."
While many kids and adults these days prefer to synchronize with computer and phone screens rather than with people, the experience is not the same. "There's no mutuality, and the pleasure in life comes from mutuality, when you and I get each other," says van der Kolk. Beyond their clinical applications, such as helping to rewire the brain after trauma to the head or to the psyche, creative arts therapies offer a different kind of payback. They seek to restore a sense of connection and play, of exploring possibilities and expanding awareness. The very things that make us human.
Garrison Institute Garrisoninstitute.org
Theresa Haney Theresahaney.com
Izlind Integrative Wellness Center & Institute Izlind.com
Bessel van der Kolk, MD Besselvanderkolk.net