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Stories from the Field: Arts in Trauma Healing

by Sharon Tan

Ps 34:18: The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Mary Beth Saurman is an Arts Master Facilitator with the Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute with many years’ experience in creative arts therapy. At a Zoom talk organised by Wycliffe Singapore in October 2020, she first explained how God has built into us the ability to heal from the grief of experiencing pain and loss. However, sometimes, the pain and grief may be so great that the person experiences “trauma” – when the pain and grief is so overwhelming that he gets “stuck” and unable to move into the healing process. Sometimes, trauma may get buried, but can be reignited by a trigger, even years later.

Trauma and the Brain

She then gave a simplified explanation of the functioning of the human brain. When looked at from the side, the lower parts of the brain govern instincts and emotions, while the higher part governs cognitive functions. When a person experiences trauma, the emotional and instinctual areas of the brain ignite, while the cognitive part is quiet. Looked at from the top, the human brain is divided into two sections. The left brain is the analytical side, while the right brain is the creative and expressive side. When a person experiences trauma, the analytical left brain is usually quiet, while the creative and expressive right brain is active.

In effect, when a person experiences trauma, the parts of the brain that control cognitive and analytical functions are overwhelmed, so the person struggles to express the experience or his feelings in a meaningful way. He may be unable to tell the story in sequence, or recall key parts, or even make much sense of the events. Without a way to express his story to himself, he cannot begin to process the trauma.

Why Arts? This is where the arts come in – by making use of the emotional and creative parts of the brain, the person is enabled to express his traumatic story in a meaningful way, and gradually build connections with the cognitive and analytical parts of the brain so that he can process the events and eventually start the process of healing.

Artforms are more than just aesthetic; they are mediums of communication through which people are able to articulate their emotions. This could be through songs or drama, or even embroidery or food! However, the artistic medium has to be relevant and meaningful to the person, using mechanisms from his own culture which are familiar and understood.


In the short time available, the speaker was only able to touch on one way of expressing grief and loss – through laments. These could be in the form of drama, painting, music, etc. She gave an example from one area in South Asia, where it was not uncommon for young girls to be sold into prostitution, often by family members. A believer wrote a song (a lament) to express the grief experienced by these girls:

Oh sisters, listen to my song

This is my story As I think of my pain

I feel I am in hell Looking at my troubles Promising luxurious life He took me to Bombay He sold me there for prostitution… I pass my days crying day and night Please spread my story among our people…

Do not trust anyone

The song brought much emotional healing to the girls, and became very popular in the area. It has also been credited with reducing the incidence of prostitution in this people group. The talk only brushed the surface of these issues, but Wycliffe Singapore hopes to have the speaker conduct a full Arts in Trauma Healing workshop in December 2020. If you are interested in attending, please contact us to indicate your interest. Do note that places are very limited due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Images: © Mary Beth Saurman

In Singapore: Trauma healing is needed not just in the mission field, but wherever people suffer trauma. Shortly after this talk, I came across these examples of creative arts being used in healing in Singapore:

Ong Sor Fern of the Straits Times wrote in “Arts programmes offer hope and healing for underprivileged kids and communities”, Oct 19, 2020:

Arts outreach programmes, ranging from drama workshops to storytelling sessions, have been sprouting at the grassroots level as community workers and artists recognise how the arts can help unlock communications with at-risk children and youth, as well as serve therapeutic purposes.

And in the Esplanade Tunnel, songs written by girls from the Singapore Girls Home play softly while pedestrians can read the lyrics displayed on the wall. This community engagement programme, Songwriting for Hope, harnesses the power of songwriting to provide a safe and empathetic outlet for vulnerable girls to express their life stories, emotions, hopes and dreams through songs, and thence experience healing.

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