CHECK, Change and/or Keep What You Need:
An Art Therapy Relational Neurobiological (ATR-N) Trauma Protocol
Review by Megan Thomas
If you were unable to attend NorCATA’s winter workshop, let me paint you a picture. You’re on the wharves of Fort Mason on a surprisingly sunny Sunday afternoon in January in the City. On the second floor, as a sea breeze slips under an open window, you smell fresh coffee and pastries, you hear the exchanges from the sidewalk farmers’ market below and you see on the floor by the podium the remnants of the flower mandala created by board members and guests at our Annual Board Meeting: bright purples, greens and oranges. And you’re here to enjoy what Board President Sari Pace calls our “tribe of art therapists” and to honor Dr. Laury Rappaport as this year’s recipient of the 2018 Honorary Lifetime Member (HLM) award for her “trailblazing spirit” and extensive work in focusing-oriented art therapy (FOAT).
You’re here to attend a workshop on the Art Therapy Relational Neuroscience (ATR-N) theoretical and clinical approach developed by Noah Hass-Cohen and Joanna Clyde Findlay. Today, Joanna demonstrated for us how the ATR-N approach offers a comprehensive integration of art therapy and interpersonal neurobiology, and how it can be used to help clients with autobiographical memory, reflecting and creating, touch and space, meaning-making, emotions, and dealing with long-term stress and trauma.
The ATR-N approach, first developed by Noah Hass-Cohen, is comprised of six principles: Creative Embodiment, Relational Resonating, Expressive Communicating, Adaptive Responding, Transformative Integrating, and Empathizing and Compassion (CREATE). After five years of study, case examinations and research, the duo have put forth their intentional, active six-week art therapy protocol into their book, Art Therapy and the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity, and Resiliency (2015). The book’s chapters are organized around these CREATE principles, demonstrating the dynamic interplay of brain and bodily systems during art therapy. This structured approach uses the ever-evolving science of neurobiology and trauma which explains how emotions reside in the limbic system, and why they are not controlled by the prefrontal cortex or intellectual problem solving functions. Instead, when someone experiences trauma, this memory is stored in the limbic, the amygdala, and other lower brain structures, causing the fear, dysregulation and mental suffering we so often see in survivors.
Come back to beautiful Fort Mason where a room of curious, passionate art therapists endeavor together on an experiential test of this protocol by creating an image alteration. Participants were asked to think of and then use art materials to depict a challenging experience. We were asked to sit with the memory of this event; and then we were invited to change or alter a part of our art piece. Manifesting this change in the materials, we shared in dyads the process of revisiting a challenge that carried fear, frustration or confusion. We dialogued about how it felt to change our image and to describe the ways in which we did so. Some added flaps, some cut away or covered up, added or ripped through our original images, and each art response was a personally meaningful process. By giving this sense of agency, this physical control over a situation initially so beyond our grasp and so powerfully emotional, this directive shed light into the CREATE process and how it can benefit clients in their healing and growth. For more information, please download or purchase the book, Art Therapy and the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity, and Resiliency (2015). Still and video images (credit: Megan Thomas) to enhance your experience of Sunday’s workshop are available on the NorCATA website. Feel free to post questions, add comments if you attended, and give us suggestions on more topics you’d like to see NorCATA cover in future workshops!