POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
Words Reviews

Review: Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy

Published on Oct 07, 2020 by Pamela Whitaker and Book Club Members: Rachel Byrne, Katie Harley, Mary McClave, Margaret McClory, Bridget Nugent, Nora O’Baoill

MSc Art Therapy Book Club for Cathy Malchiodi, Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy (Ulster University, Belfast School of Art) 

Expressive Arts Therapy

Cathy Malchiodi’s new book, Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy is an artistic expedition through the panorama of expressive arts therapy. It is an articulation of practice that promotes Malchiodi’s virtuosity as a psychologist, artist, expressive arts therapist, art therapist, and director of the Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute (Malchiodi, 2020). The book is written as an articulation and implementation of trauma-informed approaches through the arts. The modalities of artistry represented in the book are opportunities for the senses to communicate narratives of capacity and agency, as an essential form of regeneration.

This review is by a book club composed of an art therapy educator and trainees. The goal was to evaluate how Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapies could support art therapy training and research as well as become a bridge between art therapy and expressive arts therapy techniques. The review is collaborative and highlights the voices of six art therapy trainees who participated in the book club, interested in extending their repertoire of art therapy materials and methods. Indeed, there is no shortage of creative potential to navigate in this book—visual art, movement, sound, words and enactment are all treated equally.

This is a book that beckons with therapeutic adventure and as a book club, we embarked upon its pages to make more of ourselves as practitioners of art therapy. We are a collection of readers who each found something for ourselves in our encounters with the book. Foremost, there was a synthesis of diverse sources of trauma-informed practice, so that a variety of approaches gained coherency. The writing clarifies theoretical complexity into composure and the reader is expertly informed at every turn of the page. The book supports the ingenuity and confidence of the arts therapy trainee, in tandem with the arts therapy practitioner furthering their professional development.

Malchiodi provides useful and insightful co-regulation techniques and exercises that can be used with clients to aid self-regulation from a diverse range of sources, incorporating yoga poses, the use of music, mindful breathing exercises, journaling, expressive writing as well as bilateral movement and drawing in her expressive arts practice. The use of case studies is helpful in appreciating how these techniques could work with clients in the room, and as a trainee it is inspiring to get an idea of how you can work in a multidisciplinary way. (R. Byrne 2020, personal communication, 3 October)

Malchiodi endorses the artistically informed therapeutic relationship as providing the foundation for transforming trauma into agency. This book is not the adoption of a singular artistic practice, but the multiplicity of the arts as an assemblage that restores intention and sensory attunement. The expressive arts meet trauma as possibilities for communication that actively enliven physicality and cognition, or “whole-brain” integration (Malchiodi, 2020, p. 109). The book’s synthesis of neurobiology and trauma research with practical applications for how to be artistically trauma-informed is a gift of insight and scholarship. Each trauma-informed practitioner (some examples are Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, Peter Levine, Bruce Perry, Pat Ogden and Judith Herman) contributes resources for enhancing aliveness and self-efficacy. For an art therapy trainee, navigating these contributors can be complex, and the gift of Malchiodi is her organisation and structuring of knowledge from diverse sources.

“Malchiodi’s vast knowledge and professional insight solidified the ideas introduced by leading professionals in trauma-informed research. Her ability to break down complex ideas and produce understandable frameworks are paired with insightful case studies allowing the reader to grasp the concepts and ‘see’ them in action” (K. Harley 2020, personal communication, 27 August).

Malchiodi presents us with a totality of influences. There exists an explanation of the arts not only for personal agency but for promoting resiliency in the arts therapy practitioner. The role of culture is also significant in this book, with the arts as beneficial for multiple kinds of telling in words, imagery, sound and movement. Social engagement also features, as a reaching out into the rupture and repair of the human condition, or the complexity of human experience as artistic material.

Writing the Language of the Body resized

IACAT, 2019, Writing the Language of the Body Workshop. Dublin: Dance Ireland.

The theme of mobilising one’s own resources is central to the book, in terms of a strengths-based approach represented in creativity for agency. The book is brain-wise and body-wise, and it features case studies to exemplify practice and the impact of working within an artistic repertoire. The case studies integrate clinical skills with trauma-informed research, offering practical resources for the reader to consider for their practice.

“The clearness of Malchiodi’s writing communicates neuroscientific approaches to arts therapy, where body and mind are integral to the emotional state of the person. I found myself saying ‘ah, so that’s what this means’ on so many occasions as the unattached, floating pieces of knowledge fell into place” (M. McClory, personal communication, 26 August).

The reader is not required to be chronological in their approach to the book, but rather can inquisitively search through text and imagery, finding insights at every turn of the page.

“I found this book to be very helpful in synthesising the many theoretical, practical and ethical components of expressive arts therapy…the format of the book allows you to navigate your way through chapters of interest, without having to read the book from cover to cover. The use of everyday language makes the book accessible and easier to digest” (B. Nugent 2020, personal communication, 30 August).

In this sense, Malchiodi encourages an instinct to roam and discover and we met the book as an embodied encounter. The trauma-informed research and creative dimensions of the book mirror the meeting of the arts as a somatic response seeking recovery. There is resiliency in the breadth, volume and magnitude of the expressive arts facilitating becoming.  

As a reading collective, we began thinking this could be a textbook for art therapy training, but it became a way of practice that prompted us to reconsider art therapy as a more multi-dimensional experience. The reader can start anywhere in this book and find a new beginning. We learned that imagination is found within the body that seeks to find hope in the life force that reaches beyond limitations. It is the book’s message to move-on, to reach beyond inhibition, that ignites the reader’s desire to be more physically on-the-go, in tandem with the author’s urgency to embody meaning. The starting point is taking action and embracing arts-based expressions that bring us out of ourselves and into multiple ways of revelation. The multiplicity of narratives (both verbal and non-verbal) that are encouraged in Malchiodi’s approach are resources for the storying of experience as both a telling and enactment of biography. The documentation of case studies profile Malchiodi’s therapeutic ingenuity, and the reader learns from her examples of expressive arts therapy.

“Each chapter is not unlike a flower in a meadow, distinct but interconnected, and offering a secure base in which to practice. I find Malchiodi’s perspective underpinned with a humility and a generous educator’s readiness to both admit to and learn from mistakes (N. O’Baoill 2020, personal communication, 18 August).

Malchiodi’s therapeutic witnessing is an opening to participation, and the arts are personalised to meet the specific requirements of each individual’s quest.

CM 2

Guilford Press, 2020, Cathy Malchiodi [Photograph]. Guilford Press: New York.

"Supporting and enhancing resilience in any form is also predicated on the ability to imagine new narratives for one’s life, post-trauma. This is a critical step because without the ability to transform distress-laden narratives, one has not completed the final step in trauma reparation—making meaning by imagining a new story for one’s life" (Malchiodi, 2020, p. 323).

Although our starting point was reading to enhance our knowledge base, we were ultimately energised as artists.

“The book is invaluable for both art therapists and trainees in terms of Malchiodi’s honesty and authenticity. She writes from her personal experience and also integrates her knowledge of both research and theory providing a composite view of how the expressive arts may assist clients experiencing trauma” (M. McClave 2020, personal communication, 21 August).

Malchiodi also encourages “imagination as an antidote to adversity” (Malchiodi, 2020, p. 345) in regards to social activism, and becoming a change-maker not only within our own lives but for others and society at large. As readers, we were moved by the lives of the narrators (clients) in the case studies, who were transformed by the arts and who brought forth their stories and their imagery as opportunities for declaration and invention. They executed performances of change as activists within their own production of expressive arts therapy.

Our recommendation, for the next edition of the book, is to feature Malchiodi’s expressive arts therapy studio of practice. We wanted to see everything going on in the studio—the visuals, the dance, the drama, the musical invitations, and the ways expressive arts therapy could be produced in the design of the studio. The depiction of the expressive arts therapy experience could be more prominent and everywhere in the book. It could help the reader settle into the dynamics of Malchiodi’s expressive arts therapy space as a surrounding of potential. In addition to words of description, we encourage the author to show us more with imagery that showcases the possibilities of an expressive arts therapy session. The next edition could further arts-based inquiries in its visual commitment to representing the scenes and materials of expressive arts therapy so that we know more by seeing more. As readers, we wondered how to prepare and enact the space or stage of expressive arts therapy so that it enlivens with its opportunity and its dimensions of experience. In essence, we have the desire to inhabit the scene and the becoming of Malchiodi’s studio, not as readers, but as artists with enthusiasm to exhibit ourselves in a studio of opportunity.


Malchiodi, C. (2020) Expressive Arts Therapy in Trauma Healing and Recovery. Available at https://www.cathymalchiodi.com [Accessed 3 October 2020].

Malchiodi, C. (2020) Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body and Imagination in the Healing Process. New York: Guilford Press.


Back Row (left to right): Bridget Nugent, Margaret McClory, Nora O'Baoill, Rachel Byrne and Mary McClave 

Front Row (left to right): Katie Harley, Pamela Whitaker 

Pamela Whitaker is a lecturer and course director for the MSc Art Therapy course at Ulster University, Belfast School of Art.

Rachel Byrne, Katie Harley, Mary McClave, Margaret McClory, Bridget Nugent, Nora O’Baoill are art therapy trainees in the MSc Art Therapy course at Ulster University, Belfast School of Art.