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Healing Trauma with Ethnoarts

by Sharon Tan

Cluster Munition Coalition Art Therapy Workshop, Philippines

Some individuals, families, and even entire ethnic groups may have suffered from experiences that give rise to psychological and emotional trauma. Some continue to do so for prolonged periods. Many minority peoples, because of where they live and their lower socio-economic status, have suffered traumas as a community. Christians working among these people often feel the need to help these people experience the healing that comes from God. But how can they reach out in a cross-culturally appropriate and effective way?

What is psychological trauma?

Psychological trauma can be caused by extremely stressful events such as violence, abuse or disasters that destroy a person’s sense of security. The events may be sudden and of short duration, such as earthquake, or may have persisted for a long period of time, such as domestic or sexual abuse. The victim may have experienced the event directly, or may have been a witness to the event. These experiences can cause him to feel helpless and leave behind a legacy of disturbing emotions, memories and anxiety. He may feel numb, disconnected, and unable to trust others (and God).


The ultimate goal of trauma healing is to help the victims of trauma build up psychological resilience, i.e. the emotional or mental ability to cope with the aftermath of crisis or stressful events and recover from it. In order to achieve this, they often need help to discover a new framework to understand and process past experiences, and develop ways to recover their sense of stability and control over their lives. Beyond that, they need a new or restored relationship with God.

Traditional therapy for victims of trauma takes the form of talking through the experiences and emotions with a therapist. The therapist aims to create a safe relationship with the victim so that the victim is able to cope with memories of the traumatic event. Through talking about the event, the victim is helped to reframe the traumatic experiences more objectively. This stabilises and regulates the body's responses to the stressful events and memories, and brings healing to the victim. However, some victims find that talking about the trauma forces them to repeatedly relive the experiences, and the process of undergoing this type of therapy may be too painful to be helpful.

A man plays a lyre. Photo: Marc Ewell, Wycliffe Global Alliance

Art therapy

Using involvement in expressive arts as a means of healing from trauma and loss is not new. All cultures have developed practices such as rituals, conventions, procedures and ceremonies as a way to deal with traumatic events. When art therapy is used to help victims of trauma process a distressing event, the victim is encouraged to express memories and feelings through some form of art. Many people find it easier to express their emotions through artistic media than words as the artistic activity engrosses the mind and releases the inhibitions which block the victim from thinking about the trauma. Using art is also an effective way to address issues that may be too difficult, disturbing or taboo to express in words. Engaging in an artistic activity also helps reduce stress and increase relaxation, which in itself promotes healing.

Working through sensory activities such as drawing, singing, role-playing, writing or dancing also enables more vivid recollection, and can help the victim express feelings and emotions more clearly. Memories, some of which may have been suppressed because of the pain and trauma they are associated with, can be made visible through art when words are inadequate. This is particularly effective when dealing with children or working cross-culturally, as difficulties with language can be an obstacle in talk therapy.

Art therapy has been found to be very effective in group situations as well, for example, when an entire community has suffered the same traumatic event such as a natural disaster or war, or when several individuals have suffered similar traumas. Engaging in art-making together creates a shared identity among the victims and fosters communal support. This aspect of group art therapy is particularly effective when working in communal cultures, as many ethnic minority cultures are.

A band plays traditional music. Photo: Sarah Halferty, Wycliffe Global Alliance


When working in a cross-cultural or cross-linguistic environment, art-making activities have been shown to enhance communication by bridging language and cultural barriers. When these art-making activities involve the use of familiar art forms such as visual symbols, movements, sounds or music in culturally appropriate ways, victims are able express themselves more naturally. This improves healing while at the same time affirming the value of that group’s cultural heritage.

God loves every “nation, tribe, people and language”. Providing a safe space for a person or community to tell their story of trauma using their culture’s art forms is just another way of reaching out to them with God’s hand of love.

The Linguistics Institute of Payap University in Chiangmai regularly holds Ethnoarts training courses. Find out more here.

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