Scribbling Through Trauma: An Art Therapy Exercise for Healing

Sep 15, 2023
Scribbling Through Trauma: An Art Therapy Exercise for Healing

After years of feeling emotionally numb from my trauma, grabbing a pen and wildly scribbling on paper broke open something deep inside me. All the anger, sadness, and grief trapped in my body started pouring out onto the page. It was messy and primal, but profoundly cathartic.
   -- K.R.

When trauma remains unprocessed, it becomes stuck in the body and nervous system. Finding pathways to safely release these pent-up emotions is essential for healing holistically. One creative approach used in art therapy is spontaneous scribbling.

Scribbling involves letting loose with crayons or markers and allowing freeform scribbles to flow out onto paper without judgment. This practice bypasses the overthinking mind to unlock subconscious emotions. As we rapidly make all kinds of shapes and textures, we tap into a meditative state of uninhibited self-expression.

This can initiate a powerful cathartic release, helping integrate traumatic memories at a deeper somatic level. With care and intention, scribbling offers an embodied tool to compassionately process unresolved pain that lingers within.

Understanding Trauma’s Imprint on the Body

Trauma recovery requires much more than just telling our story through talk therapy. When something overwhelmingly frightening or painful happens, the brain’s fear and survival circuits get activated. The amygdala fires, signaling the release of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones.

Our breathing and heart rate increase. We go into fight-flight-freeze mode. Many describe trauma as the body and nervous system becoming “hijacked.” But if we cannot fully process the experience in the moment, these physiological reactions and powerful emotions do not discharge. They get trapped inside.

Over time, the undischarged trauma gets imprinted in the body as unconscious tension patterns, flashbacks, hypervigilance, emotional numbness, dissociation, chronic anxiety or depression, anger issues, and feelings of disconnection. This is because terrifying experiences not fully metabolized at the time are encoded implicitly in bodily memory and right brain limbic circuits, not just as explicit left-brain narrative.

Mainstream talk therapy approaches are often insufficient to access these deeply imprinted somatic traces. Complementary body-based and experiential practices are needed to fully process trauma where it persists in the body and nervous system.

Introducing Scribble Art Therapy

Creative art therapy approaches provide embodied tools to enhance trauma healing through nonverbal expression. These methods invite releasing painful emotions through imagery, movement or sensory experiences beyond just talk.

One such technique used in art therapy settings is spontaneous scribbling. This involves grabbing some crayons, pastels or markers in colors that feel appealing, and scribbling freely on paper.

There is no need to think, judge or plan out the scribbles. The goal is to let our hands unleash the markers in whatever way feels good in the moment. As we cover the page through repetitive, rhythmic motions, we enter a meditative flow state.

This bilateral stimulation engages both hemispheres of the brain while relaxing the body. Stress hormones decrease. Rather than thinking logically from the linguistic left brain, we access more primal parts of self and subconscious mind through the nonverbal right brain.

The aim is not artistic perfection, but emotional release. Allowing our hands, arms and senses to guide the scribbling process awakens creativity, imagination and inner flow states that invite suppressed parts of self to emerge.

Photo credit: Alexander Grey @Unsplash

Releasing Trapped Emotions Through Scribbling

For clients dealing with unresolved trauma, spontaneous scribbling often initiates a profound emotional release. As they stop holding back and allow their inner emotional states to freely flow out through art, powerful feelings can surface that were previously stagnant or suppressed.

Scribbling vigorously with dark, heavy colors may permit safe expression of anger related to past trauma or loss. Making jagged, intense lines could potentially reveal underlying anxiety. Gentle, hesitant marks could indicate underlying grief waiting to be felt.

The unplanned process enables whatever needs to emerge in that moment. There is no wrong way to scribble. The bilateral body movements combined with entering a non-judging mental space allows natural catharsis of whatever emotions are ready to be freed at a deeper level.

This dynamic externalization through visual art of suppressed emotions held in the body is deeply releasing and reparative. We feel viscerally a sense of letting go as our inner pain takes symbolic shape on the page. The creative process provides enough distance to stay grounded, while still honoring emotional hurts longing to be seen, felt and healed.

Processing Trauma Through Artistic Expression

On a deeper level, art therapy practices like spontaneous scribbling may help integrate traumatic memories and stuck somatic energy by engaging both left-brain logic and right brain emotions. The fluid bilateral movements integrate neural networks that may have become disconnected or impaired after trauma initially overwhelmed the system.

Allowing free nonverbal expression also helps bypass the language centers where traumatic memories may be imprinted in fragmented implicitly body memories not yet formed into coherent narrative. Communicating through imagery and sensory-based creative flow provides an alternative route for these dissociated fragments to become integrated into explicit narrative that can be processed at a higher level.

As we fluidly scribble, we may enter immersive flow states characterized by timelessness, dissociation from ego-self, and complete presence. These meditative states strengthen neural integration and potentially rewire trauma responses in the brain toward more regulation and resilience.

Guiding Your Therapeutic Scribbling Experience

If you want to explore using art therapy scribbling for trauma processing, here are some tips:

Find a quiet, comfortable space where you feel safe to move through a range of emotions. Have a range of art supplies ready like markers, crayons, pastels, charcoal and large sheets of paper or canvas. Set the intention to allow any suppressed feelings related to past trauma to safely emerge through scribbling.

Begin making loose, random marks on the page and see where they take you. Let your arm sweep and swirl vigorously across the page with freedom. Switch between art materials. Layer shapes, colors and lines. Explore different speeds, movements and pressures. Avoid judging the artistic output.

Relax your eyes and mind into a meditative flow state, letting the bilateral movements soothe your nervous system. Take breaks as needed. Afterwards, journal to process and integrate any insights gained from observing the finished scribble. Repeat the process over multiple sessions as desired.

Consider pairing scribbling with somatic-based counseling or body therapies like EMDR or Somatic Experiencing to help further metabolize released emotions. Or work with an art therapist if needing more support to process what emerges.

Continuing Your Creative Healing Journey

Scribbling offers just one starting point to harness the power of art therapy for trauma recovery. To continue integrating memories through creative methods, experiment with collage art, painting, clay work, mask making, mixed media pieces, and other modalities.

Find which forms of artistic expression resonate most in this season of your healing journey. Make art just for yourself without concern for outcomes. Follow your intuition to guide you. Most importantly, approach it with self-compassion - creative exploration can illuminate our inner world in unexpected ways.

Trust in your innate capacity to process trauma when provided the right tools. What was frozen in the body and nervous system begins to thaw. Old emotions surface, ready to be felt and released. In time, we move through pain to contact our creative essence once more.

Conclusion: Scribbling to Free Trapped Emotions

The body and nervous system store unresolved trauma long after painful events occur. Mainstream therapy often neglects these stubborn somatic traces. Methods like art therapy scribbling offer pathways to safely access and release emotions frozen in body memory after trauma.

Picking up a pen and freely scribbling without judgment brings form to what before was stuck in nerve and tissue. As we externalize inner states through spontaneous marks and lines, we feel viscerally a letting go of what no longer serves our healing.

With care, we can process even our most painful memories at a new level. Our scribbles make visible the invisible, unlocking once inaccessible parts of self. Trauma tries to rob us of creative expression. Scribbling reminds us this inner freedom remains untouched. Our capacity to heal awaits activation, ready to be reclaimed one crayon stroke at a time.

Photo credit: Elena Mozhvilo @Unsplash

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