Creativity – the upside of trauma
Today's blog post is brought to you by special guest Alison Palkhivala! You can find out more about Alison – and how to connect with her online – at the bottom of this post.
Ever notice how many of the most creative types have suffered great pain or faced tremendous challenges? Van Gogh could not have been in a happy state of mind when he cut off his ear. Picasso’s Blue Period is one of his most moving. I don’t even want to know what swirls through the mind of David Lynch, but I sure love his movies.
Creativity as a tool
Creativity can be an invaluable tool for overcoming trauma. It provides a “safe” outlet for painful memories and feelings, giving your mind and body the opportunity to process and heal. It can also provide a “safe” medium through which others can share your feelings, creating a healing sense of community.
When you experience a trauma, often the aftereffects can be lifelong. One of the reasons for this is that your so-called lizard brain, that primitive part of your brain responsible for much of your emotional experience, gets stuck in the trauma, making you relive it in all kinds of strange ways at an emotional, unconscious level. This is particularly likely to happen if the trauma occurred during an especially vulnerable period in your life, such when you were a child or when you were ill, injured, or otherwise unable to defend yourself. Your intellectual brain knows that the trauma is over, the danger has passed, but your lizard brain is stuck in “fight or flight” mode. This is a common underpinning of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
You know what doesn’t work for trauma and PTSD? Denial. You can tell yourself as much as you like that the trauma is past, that you are safe, but your lizard brain just isn’t listening. In fact, it can’t even hear you. It’s not particularly well-connected to your frontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for reasoning, so you can’t reason with it. Try telling yourself that the wolf spider crawling over your shoulder is far more afraid of you than you are of it. Feel better? I didn’t think so.
Unprocessed trauma manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Your body might continuously pump out stress hormones, making you excessively sensitive or jittery, anxious, and tired. You may have panic attacks out of the blue. Many people find they
unconsciously re-create former trauma. For instance, people who were abused as children may choose abusive romantic partners or may, in turn, abuse their own children.
Talking to the lizard brain
Since it won’t listen to reason, communicating with your lizard brain can be tricky, but it can definitely be done. You just need to find a back door. That’s where creativity comes in. Our creative side taps into something deep within us, something emotional, something vulnerable, something primitive.
Ever listen to a song, look at a painting, or read a poem and find tears streaming down your face? Sometimes it’s clear why you’re responding this way, but other times it’s a real mystery. Why is a poem about someone’s lost dog making you weep till you your chest heaves? You don’t even like dogs. But the author expressed their own trauma through that poem, or it triggered your own trauma, and your lizard brain is responding to it. That’s the power of the collective unconscious.
Take me, for example. My trauma stemmed from a pretty heinous injury when I was 12. I broke my hip skiing, and that made it mad. Really mad. So mad it ate my cartilage and replaced it with glue. It hurt so much just sitting on my bed made me scream in pain.
But kids don’t break their hips, so no one was expecting complications. And doctors are really good at denial. Instead of listening to me, my surgeon wrote “give this girl the whip” in red marker across my physiotherapy request form. They did. The story goes downhill from there.
My creative outlet has always been writing. Both my need to manage my trauma and my need to deny it were perfectly reflected by my chosen profession: medical writer. Sometimes I even write about orthopedics. It makes me a little nauseous.
But there is no ego in my professional writing. Typically, I’m handed a topic and told to write it up in a specific, formulaic way for a particular audience. I can practically do that in my sleep. There is no creativity in this kind of writing, no trauma, no “me”.
Personal writing, like this very essay, is different. And when denial of my trauma only triggered crippling anxiety and panic attacks, I use I began to use writing as my creative outlet.
Trauma as a tool
Trauma is a wonderful muse. Just ask anyone who has written a painful but moving personal memoir. Painters like Frida Kahlo, Picasso, and Van Gogh clearly expressed their trauma through their work. And what could The Scream be depicting if it’s not some sort of trauma?
But don’t get caught up in thinking that you must have a history of suffering to be creative. First of all, everyone has suffered. Even watching someone you love suffer is a form of suffering. Secondly, your lizard brain is definitely there and most certainly has something to say, even if it’s about suffering that doesn’t affect you directly, like the Holocaust. You don’t need to think about it; it may not even be conscious. You just need to trust your instincts and leap. If you put yourself into your creative work, people will respond (not always the way you want them to, but they will respond nonetheless).
The knife cuts both ways. Trauma can be an excellent impetus toward creative endeavors. But creativity is an excellent tool for recovering from trauma. Don’t hide from your trauma. It is, and always will be, part of who you are. Use it in your creative work, and the world will know you a little better and respond.
About Alison Palkhivala:
Alison Palkhivala is an award-winning freelance writer and journalist specializing in lifestyle, health, and medicine. She has provided content for some of the online health world’s most high-profile players, including WebMD, Medscape, and MedPage Today.
While Alison has written about virtually everything health-related, her main passion is helping people better understand mental illness. In that light, she has written extensively about anxiety and depression and is developing books about palliative care and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Alison’s non-professional time is largely taken up with family life. She lives in Montreal, Canada with her husband and two children. You can find more information about her on her website as well as on Facebook and Twitter. You can also check out her blog about health, wellness, and medicine.