MUSEA : Intentional Creativity Foundation
Shiloh Sophia McCloud
Transforming the Impacts of Trauma through Storytelling and Creativity
An Artist’s Perspective
March 12, 2019 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men (and women) as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing all.” ~ Helen Keller
The Premise: Evaluating the role of shame in traumatic stories: Post-trauma, how effective can we be in healing ourselves? What has been working the most effectively and what are the emergent ideas for healing? Is is possible to prepare ourselves with tools for resiliency, since we know that more trauma may be coming? We know that all of us will experience various kinds of traumatic events in our lifetime, so can we build in preparation for challenges? Our desire for security keeps us at attention to avoid challenges, and then we resent them when they arrive; setting ourselves up for disappointment and self-blame.
In many cultural and familial traditions, interpretation of trauma is rooted in shaming and blaming. Both ancient and modern belief systems carry with them an idea that when challenging things happen, it is our fault; we brought those events on or even that they are part of our destiny or karma. The story we tell ourselves about ‘why’ something happened to us could be keeping stored trauma trapped in place long after it is over. Often we think making up a story and giving these events a ‘reason’ will somehow make them make sense. We attempt to rationalize the ‘why’ of it.
We will invite you to explore the beliefs many of us hold about trauma and to look at four areas that are impacted by trauma and also active in acts of focused self-expression. The concepts are rooted in experience and backed by research.
These are dangerous times: We live in war-torn countries – we live in a world dangerous to women and girls – we often live in cultures of systemic sanctioned violence – we live with an increasing risk to our safety even with all the progress we have made. Our personal stories are surrounded by the stories playing out all around us. What is the most self compassionate way to work with our life’s circumstances? What do we most need to nourish our own souls? Too often we translate what happens to us into self blame. We may not have created the traumatic experience, we may not have even been the primary voice to assign blame to ourselves, but we are the ones telling the story from now on. Reinforcing toxic conditions makes healing difficult to access and transform.
Victim Blaming re-enforces trauma: In many places in the world, there is a victim blaming view where women are blamed for their abuse. Even in one of the many circles of women I work with, where women were raised in middle class homes in the United States, most of the stories of abuse the women carry are based on them being blamed by the perpetrator, or their family, or other authorities. Often times religious ones. The shaming contributes to the density of the story, how it is carried, and how it is told to others. This sets up patterns of PTSD that don’t seem to heal, or don’t heal as quickly or completely as they should. Often the work of healing the story told about the abuse, by oneself or others, is just as challenging as the memory of the actual abuse. The two become inextricably linked and are difficult to disentangle. Even with other kinds of traumas, like car accidents, death of a loved one, a divorce, or loss of a job, shame will make its way into our story and we end up feeling at fault. In many cases, we unconsciously do this to ourselves.
Research shows that 1 of 3 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime; we know that people we love will die; we know we will experience having our hearts broken in one way or another. We know that our countries will face leadership changes that impact health, welfare, and work. The human condition is one filled with both beauty and hardship, a living paradox that we each learn to navigate in our own ways.
Yet we know there are tools to address how story lives in us, how to heal it and move on – this has been one of the primary focal points of my work for over 25 years.
About my work: As an artist, teacher, storyteller and community organizer, my faith in our ability to address trauma through self expression, storytelling, and Intentional Creativity has only increased with time. I have witnessed thousands of women’s lives transformed by their own hands, working with image, story and intention. I have been a part of education through the arts for 25 years from the elementary school level all the way to governmental services and PhD programs for 25 years. Our organization has over 250 Intentional Creativity teachers working in different places around the world, experimenting with revolutionary ideas about art and healing. Together we often serve over 15k per month, and currently have over 500 enrolled students. The work we share has a creative lineage, started by other women who went before us to create the path for us. One of our original teachers, Lenore Thomas Straus, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to bring images of justice to the public during the New Deal art era.
This is an invitation : Together let’s explore how acts of storytelling and creativity could address trapped trauma, through looking at some of the ways it gets trapped in our bodies and lives. I am not a therapist or a traditional healer; I am an artist who works with creativity to invite personal transformation.
There is significant research to back up many of the ideas I will share about the four focus areas impacted by trauma, and about how creativity reduces stress levels and can even break psychotic loops. Yet my focus for this time will not be on proving the reality that creativity is healing. Hopefully you already have some awareness of that or this information will spark that interest at a new level. Rather, I am inviting you to explore, to try on these ideas for yourself. My hope is that you will consider using story and creativity in a central way with those that you serve in your circles of influence.
Making this Relevant: As you continue your exploration of this material, I invite you consider a trauma that you continue to work with. It doesn’t matter whether the event itself was big and dramatic, or small and personal. What matters is the impact it had on you. Perhaps it has been on-going and you have done a lot of work already and still it persists. It may not be that techniques like this eliminate it completely. Yet our research has shown that this way of addressing trauma has the power to transform the story we tell ourselves, and therefore the choices we make.
The importance of self expression has been recognized by the United Nations as critical: The 57 State Members at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva made this statement in 2015:
“We stand firm in our commitment to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression, including artistic and creative expression. In addition to being an integral part of the protected human right to freedom of expression, artistic and creative expression is critical to the human spirit, the development of vibrant cultures, and the functioning of democratic societies. Artistic expression connects us all, transcending borders and barriers”.
~ This quote has come from a joint statement made by 57 State Members and delivered by Ambassador Janis Karklins, Representative of Latvia
Inviting Coherent Connection in Four Areas Impacted by Trauma
When trauma happens it can get ‘stored’ or ‘trapped’ in at least four ways within our being. There are many more, yet the ones we are focusing on here can be impacted directly by one common faculty of the human consciousness: our Imagination. Through our Imagination we can pose an inquiry and an intention that directly and instantly impacts all of these areas: Physical Body, Memory, Brain and Electromagnetic Field
Trauma cloaks the authentic self and the story we tell about ourselves. When the four areas listed above are fragmented and not in conscious relationship with each other, then the ‘voice within,’ or the inner narrative, is influenced by the critic and negative self stories. This inner voice is who we are ultimately hoping to access, empower, and free to tell a new story, experience self expression, and prepare for resiliency. Yet access to a person’s truest voice, even with awareness, is not instant, and requires some process. Imagination is the common communication faculty between those areas, granting access to often hidden domains.
More tools are needed to move the trauma from memory-based PTSD to a manageable place. Intentional Creativity is one of the tools rooted in the wisdom of the ancestors, informed by recent developments in science, tried by many thousands and can be shaped to be culturally relevant in diverse situations. Intentional Creativity is simply to create with intention and mindfulness in whatever you put your hands to – cooking, gardening, beading, drumming, painting, drawing, sculpting, potting, sewing, dancing, singing, etc. Regardless of the medium, focused intention and attention changes the one creating, the creation itself is changed, and the eventual viewers or recipients of the art that was made, are also impacted. What was created holds the energy of creation.
The four areas impacted by trauma, are also the four areas that are greatly impacted by creating. This is the reason addressing these areas is so effective. Let’s explore the four areas. Of course there are more, yet this allows us to get a closer look at the influence we can have, and why it works.
In the case of the body, trauma could be stored in a related physical place, if the original event was physical. Yet even if the physical body wasn’t directly involved, trauma can still be stored in the body in places that do not seem to correlate. These places can be hard to identify since we didn’t consciously choose the ‘where’ and the logic may be lost on us. In most cases, trauma is stored somewhere in the physical body and lives there until we can ‘clear it’ and give it a safe exit route.
In the case of memory, it not only includes what happened, but more importantly, our experience of what happened and what we made it mean at the time. This is filtered through our experiences, biases, cultural embeddedness, personal story and so many aspects that make up our personality. We often make an event mean something, even if that is not what happened in ‘reality;’ in other words, what literally happened. This memory becomes a part of our story and can even become central to who we are.
Non-linear time is a factor in how the memory stays alive. The trauma can feel as real to us today as it did the day it happened. Even if that event occurred many, many years ago. We continue to live past events over and over, and let them inform future choices. The non-linear nature of the experience can keep the story alive, all of our lives.
No matter how many times we think we are recovered, it continues to come up and we are triggered and continue to live through this framework of unresolved trauma. And most of the time we are hard on ourselves for not being able to heal it in the way that we hoped.
The brain, as contrasted with and distinct from the mind, can be a place of storage for story and our meaning making about it. This is not in memory, nor in protein or gene expression, but in the physical wiring of the brain itself. The brain has a feature called neuro-plasticity. Research proves that every hour of focused activity, like playing music or studying, has the effect of doubling the number of synaptic connections that are dedicated to that activity. Our brains allocate resources where and to the processes that need it. When there is demand, there is building of the neural bundles and it continually reinforces that. Should you not require it and it atrophies, the brain recycles the physical material, literally disassembling the bundle and assigning it to other demands. It is a classic case of ‘use it or lose it.’
Trauma has a looping effect, reinforced by our brain’s capacity and will for self preservation. Over and over again, we play out the story, creating pathways along which the information travels and, in fact, building them larger and strengthening them through this kind of self-directed neuro-plasticity. Instead of the brain withering and re-assigning those resources, we grow them through paying attention to them. We often discard the positive things that occur for us, because pleasure receptors are not requisite for remaining alive. Paying attention to things we’ve learned are dangerous, through traumatic events, could keep us alive, so we allocate attention and resources there. The brain’s ultimate objective is to keep us alive.
The body’s building blocks are proteins. These proteins are synthesized by the electrical currents that travel our neurons. The proteins then directly affect gene expression elsewhere in the body and are responsible for the release of hormones, such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in the case of pleasure, or cortisol, adrenaline, aldosterone and norepinephrine in the case of fear. This genetic expression is a direct predicate of the way we perceive that which is happening to us at any particular event or moment. Thus, the meaning that we assign to that which happens, shows up in our minds, then brains, then our bodies as a cascade of immediate chemical reactions.
According to peer reviewed research at the The National Institute for Integrative Healthcare, there is an electromagnetic field around the human body. This is detectable through telemetry, or a deployment of instruments that detect these fields or currents. For example, the electromagnetic field of the heart extends 15 – 20 feet and has been proven to have an intelligence and a kind of seeing which impacts the brain. We are more than our physical bodies, and memory, which many scientists say is non-local, meaning, not in the body only, may be distributed throughout our ‘field.’
So in essence, our ‘field’ carries the stories as much as the body. And many healers are known to say – it has to be healed in both places. If you heal the body but it remains in the field, it may come back and vice versa. Over time, we continue to add layers of meaning to the ‘memory’ that can influence all four of the impacted areas of our being, thus compounding and even intensifying the story we tell ourselves about the experience. We may even embellish and draw new conclusions that continue to fester.
Imagination, the seat of self expression, is the ‘access’ to each of the impacted areas: physical body, memory, brain, and field. Imagination can reach all four at one time, making inroads of connectivity and integration. Before, we may have tried different ways of healing that impacted one area, but did not have awareness of all four. This is why we use imagination to do the work of reweaving trauma in our story.
Two tools employed by the imagination, storytelling and art making, can have a significant impact in the way that past experiences live on through us. Ultimately, through Intentional Creativity and consciousness, the individual can transform how the story lives within and how it impacts them going forward. With this awareness, they can shape the story, use it for good, and support themselves and others.
The imagination is defined as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.” In other words, we can use the imagination to revisit a memory from the past in current time. The power of how it is designed is truly phenomenal and an often overlooked gift in the healing journey.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ― Brene Brown
How This Works : Moving the Energy of a Story: This is an approach to resiliency that we use in our community in many different creative processes. When we pose an inquiry, the brain is activated, memory is accessed, our body responds and our field is impacted within seconds. KNOWING this is happening, and applying our intention to heal, greatly increases our functional capacities, putting the storyteller in the position of power and threading different domains of stored trauma.
Trauma lives in the memory as a moving story, so using imagination to SEE it gives you direct access to shape it. Imagination is in use when a person is working with a story, whether they know it or not. The choice to be INTENTIONAL about the use of our imagination in a desire to heal dramatically shifts the results. It is as if the person turning towards the trauma directly impacts it through their focused choice. Further, science shows us that by ‘witnessing’ an electron, it experiences being witnessed and changes what it is doing. So it is with trauma; our focus on it begins to change it. Yet if we do not direct that focus, we may not harness the power that is possible.
When a person tells their story they are able to witness the story outside of themselves. They remove themselves as the story, and become the storyteller. This separation to becoming storyteller instead of story is an important change. Over time it allows the ‘energy signature’ of the trauma in all four areas and more, to be reduced.
- Speak: Being witnessed in the story, through storytelling. Here are several ways: in a group setting, through writing it down, through acting it out in a dramatization through therapeutic process, and through painting and drawing.
- Re-storying: Once the story has been told there is an invitation to self, by self, or others who are supporting, to re-contextualise the way the storyteller is framing the story. Suggestions for a new view may be helpful here. However, often the person telling the story hears it in a new way through being witnessed. They often have their own solution, yet with witness and insight it gives them new access, changing the story in mid-air.
- Claiming: Now the one telling the story can move into the position of the storyteller, taking clear control of the story and self-directing the next steps. The energy of the person, the charge around the story IS DIFFERENT. This change is measurable. Through time, the brain’s capacity to rewire the pathways will change the triggers and the way the story lives in the being of that person. The storyteller can use their imagination to see a living energetic connection between the body, memory, brain, and field, and ask them to collaborate. This level of conscious connection can dramatically shift the capacity of the faculties which appear fragmented to work together.
- Creativity: To take the process one step further, you can bring imagery into the storytelling. This can happen after the first three steps or can be the context in which the entire process happens. For example, drawing out the story and sharing about it, is a way to be witnessed as an alternative to talking or writing. This can be especially powerful when working with children, individuals with communication challenges, or those who simply do not have the words to describe their experience. We learn to tell our stories through pictures as young children, long before we learn to write them down.
- Experience: Reclaiming oneself as the storyteller through image making has the person SEE and FEEL the changed story. Through seeing and feeling, hormones are released, stress is decreased and new messages are flowing through the body and the brain. When the eyes see, the brain believes. A new image emerges that becomes the new reference point for the ‘memory’ as the person assigns the new image to the memory. When memories around that topic come up they recall the new image, and new energy as a way to counter, an antidote to the previous pattern. Instead of being caught off guard, they are prepared with a new image and action, creating resiliency.
While we may not be able to transform all trauma into a daring adventure, yet if we become the one telling the story, we become at cause to choose. Instead of things just happening to us and then cataloguing everything as trauma, some of our life experiences could become not only a part of our adventure, and our legend, but a source of our strength.
If you are interested in learning more about Intentional Creativity and working with us, please come register for a free experiential class by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
2017 Intentional Creativity® Research from our community with over 500 women
Practice and Compassion as experienced through creative process
- 93% said they experience creativity as a mindfulness practice
- 89% said they include creativity as a part of their spiritual practice
- 86% felt that their creative practice positively impacted those closest to them
- 92% feel that creativity influences their compassion for themselves
- 90% said they experienced compassion for others near them through creativity
- 83% experienced compassion for others they did not know through stories
- 80% said they would suggest creativity to others who experience depression
Self Expression and Well Being as experienced through creative process
- 87% consider themselves self expressed as compared to before
- 86% experienced breakthroughs and aha’s during painting
- 90% experienced a shift in their default thinking
- 88% experienced a shift in their personal story through creating with intention
- 89% said they bring insights into their life discovered while creating
- 85% said they experienced an expanded sense of self
- 79% noticed an ease of physical symptoms while creating
- 93% experience creating as a relief/break that benefits their overall well being
- 90% experienced a shift in recurring emotional pain through creative process
- 90% said that creativity helped them maintain a healthy outlook