POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

Trauma and the Body in Art Psychotherapy: A Conversation with Claire Colreavy Donnelly

Published on Sep 11, 2023 by Shelly O'Connor

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Claire Colreavy Donnelly is a Senior Art Psychotherapist and Supervisor. Her therapy practice is creative, trauma-informed, body-based, humanistic, and integrative.  She has always been interested in mind-body connections and how creativity can be manifested through the senses, body, and movement. During her fine art degree in NCAD in the 1980s, she was passionate about including explorations around the body, senses, and movement within her installation, sculpture, and video work.  Her artwork pushed the boundaries of the art object as something for us as viewers to behold while surrounding it, to something that surrounds us in an immersive experience that engages our mind, body, and senses.

A decade later, when training to be an art psychotherapist at Sheffield Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, she also pushed the boundaries of focusing on the art object within therapy, by expanding the frame of the image to include seeing everything that happens within the therapeutic frame as something that can be read symbolically. In her practice she encourages clients and supervisees to be open to receiving and exploring all images, whether they are created as a projective art object, they emerge within their imaginations, or are experienced as an embodied felt sense. She also invites participants to create live dialogues with their images by inhabiting spaces and performing movements in relation to their images.

She has written a variety of articles about her approach in peer-reviewed journals and a chapter on "Art in Psychotherapy: The Healing Power of Images" in Creative Psychotherapy: Applying the Principles of Neurobiology to Play and Expressive Arts-based Practice (Routledge 2017).

Shelly O'Connor in Conversation with Claire Colreavy Donnelly

SOC: Claire, I was very inspired by your online lecture when you visited CCAD last year. Insights that I gained from learning about your body-informed practices have helped to form many foundations of the research piece I have chosen to write my MA thesis on. I am researching body-based art therapy intervention when working with clients who have experienced trauma. The definition of trauma continues to evolve. What is your definition of trauma?

CCD: When whatever happens to us overwhelms us and stops us from being able to process the experience. It tends to get lodged in our implicit memory system, our unconscious, our bodies, and our nervous systems without the attached sense of meaning needed to integrate it. Sometimes, when working with clients I have found that their development has been halted at the time of the trauma, and aspects of them feel frozen in time.

SOC: What is your understanding of how trauma manifests in the body?

CCD: I experience clients' nervous systems as very dysregulated, whether that shows as hyper or hypo arousal. This can show up in their body language, facial expressions and how they hold their body, the speed or rhythm of their breath and speech, the proximity they have to me in the session, and the movements they make. Their psyches can appear splintered, fragmented, or disintegrated. They can experience flashbacks or be triggered by seemingly unconnected stimuli. They can be jumpy, defensive, have a strong startle response, hyper sensitivity to change within the environment or myself as therapist. They can have a very narrow window of tolerance and they can become dissociated/numbed out when overwhelmed.

SOC: In your experience, has a body-informed approach to art psychotherapy been a suitable intervention for clients who have experienced trauma?  If yes, which aspects have been particularly effective?

CCD: Yes, but one size doesn’t fit all. Depending on the strength of the therapeutic relationship, the nature and severity of the trauma, and the activation of the client's defense systems, it can be hard to help a client open up to experimenting with engaging their body. In trauma, a disconnection between mind and body takes place in order for survival so it can be hard and scary for clients to reconnect with their bodies.

The beauty of art psychotherapy is that it gives the therapist a reason to invite clients to engage their bodies in the creative work because of the nature of creative activity and the use of different media.

Certain materials have innate qualities that engage the client's senses which help them embody and express emotion. The therapist can help a client up-regulate or down-regulate their nervous systems by suggesting the client use certain art materials and activities.

SOC: Are there any aspects that are not suitable?

CCD: The therapist has to be finely attuned to the client's need for safety and their window of tolerance, always staying at the edges in order to challenge and stretch but not expand it too quickly. Depending on the type of trauma they have experienced, certain kinds of suggestions to use particular art materials in a prescribed way might overstimulate or overwhelm a client. For example, inviting a client to embody their rage and project it out through throwing clay might be very dysregulating, depending on how developed the therapeutic alliance is and where the client is in their therapeutic journey. Initial work in helping a client find their safe place where their bodies and minds can feel safe is an essential prerequisite to more experimental body work.

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Claire Colreavy Donnelly, Private collection

SOC: Somatic experiencing involves an awareness of embodied self and implicit felt sense by focusing on a client’s perceived body sensations. Does your approach to working with trauma involve somatic experiencing?

CCD: Yes, I always invite all parts of the client to enter therapy, I work with them holistically to help them find the link between their senses, perceptions, felt senses, body sensations, movements, symptoms, thoughts, feelings. I invite them to listen to what their body might be communicating to them. These messages can be created through the artwork as pictorial records of their experiences and can help them make connections to them, offering insights and reflections for personal meaning.

SOC: Has your relationship with your own body been an important part of your work as an art therapist? How?

CCD: Yes, my body has always been a resource for me in terms of bringing content up for inspiration and exploration. My sensations and movements when projected out supply me with a bodily feedback loop that extends my understanding of what’s going on for me at any particular time.

SOC: Does somatic countertransference inform your work? If so, how?

CCD: Yes, definitely. When both our unconscious’ are connecting and I am attuning to a client, whether they are creating artwork or not, I offer myself as a resource like a finely tuned instrument that acts as an antenna for picking up all kinds of information from them.

When I receive information from them whether through my own sensations, images that emerge for me in my imagination, or on an energetic level, I hold them in my attention to see if they have any relevance. If it feels appropriate I may sound out any of the above with my client to see if I’m identifying correctly and I ask if they are willing to explore the possible significance to their process.

Other times, I keep this information to myself and explore in supervision. With a lot of practice and awareness of my own process, I’ve become better at knowing what information might belong to me and what seems to pertain to the client.

SOC: You mentioned you offer yourself and your body as a resource in your work. I am wondering whether you feel this has an impact on your own body. And if so, how do you process the impact of the work? For example, do you have any body-based self-care practices?

CCD: Yes there is an impact on our bodies as well as our minds when we bring all of ourselves to the session.  Of course, this is what we strive for, we won’t always make the mark!

I find moving out after a very activating session is good; washing my hands as a ritual to cleanse any residual projected material; doing countertransference images as artwork or movement afterward; sometimes as a preventative thing, wearing something that reminds me to protect myself energetically if l know l have a particularly difficult client (one where l am vulnerable to vicarious trauma), like visualising a mother-of-pearl aura around me; I might need to trounce a punch bag with pool noodles after a particularly challenging session - probably when I'm holding a lot of anger for a client whose been abused and hasn’t been able to express their anger themselves. Sometimes when I’m walking in the woods, l offer the toxicity, pain, and trauma from the clients to the trees as a transformative process to move on the energy, like the way they absorb carbon dioxide and transform it to oxygen. Also having a mindful shower at the end of a difficult day to shed and cleanse my energy can be helpful.

It is important to be aware and keep practicing whatever works to help us metabolise the energy we absorb from clients. 

SOC: In the field of body-informed art psychotherapy, there is a lot of evidence to support the brain-body connection. In your opinion, does working with the whole person also involve a spiritual dimension? How does this present in the work?

CCD: Yes, if we work holistically in inviting all aspects of the client into the therapy space, it is inevitable that the client's energy field or spirit will be present too. It is important that a discussion is had with the client at the onset of therapy around the therapist's approach to this to see if they are open to exploring this aspect. The client's decision needs to be respected in this and never forced upon them. I’ve had very profound experiences with clients where they have connected to dead loved ones in session and I have witnessed this experience spiritually. On other occasions, when I have felt a client's spirit very low, I have invited them to engage in visualisations that helps them connect with a spiritual source that they find nourishing.

SOC: In considering how impactful trauma is on the body, and the impactful nature of working in a body-based way (the therapist using their body as a resource that informs the work), should there be more consideration given to body-based self-care for art therapists? How might this be considered?

CCD: This concept can be introduced during MA Art Psychotherapy training through lectures, seminars, and experiential activities.

Trainee art psychotherapists can be encouraged to create their own prescription for self-care exercises that sustain and nourish their minds and bodies in their practice. In this way, a growing awareness of this approach will be disseminated and participants can cross-fertilise each other.

SOC: As a final word, what in your opinion, is the most important ingredient in the therapeutic relationship when working with trauma and why?

CCD: This is too hard to reduce down to one ingredient but I believe it is in the intersection between creativity and safe relationship.

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Shelly O’Connor completed the MA in Art Therapy from 2021-2023 at Crawford College of Art and Design, Munster Technological University, Cork. During this time, she developed a professional art therapy practice that is trauma-informed, neuroscientific, and body-based.

As part of her thesis research, Shelly investigated the impact of a body-based approach to trauma within art psychotherapy, for the client and art psychotherapist alike. During this time, she explored somatic experiences within the therapeutic relationship and body-based self-care practices for art psychotherapists.

Shelly’s background is within education, having completed a Bachelor of Education at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. During this time, she specialised in visual art education, exploring themes of mental health and wellbeing for young people through visual art.

As a registered yoga teacher, Shelly’s interest lies in facilitating somatic and sensory processes that restore equilibrium to the body and nervous system. With professional experience in schools, in-patient psychiatry, and cancer care, Shelly has witnessed the transformative power of a body-based approach to art psychotherapy. These experiences have demonstrated how the intersection between body awareness and creativity can give rise to profound expressions.