Published with permission of Helga Luest.
Art 4 Social Change
Artwork from the Art 4 Social Change project.
by Helga Luest
It’s been almost 23 years since I survived an attempted murder. Healing from that experience led me to dig deep into research and studies to learn more about how people heal – and, beyond that, how survivors of trauma live well again.
When a person experiences trauma, a natural response is to retreat into a place of isolation. Your view of the world is shaken. Things may seem much less predictable now, so staying home, or in a place that feels safe and away from the unpredictable world outside, may feel best.
While recognizing the space and time needed to heal, isolation is the opposite of what we need to foster resilience. The key to healing and building resilience is connection with others who can validate, empathize, and understand our feelings and experiences.
The Importance of Contact
We all know how heart wrenching it can feel when we’re emotionally or physically separated from someone who is important to us.
Dr. Edward Tronic looked at what happens to infants when a parent is present, but with no affect or response to the baby. The Still Face Experiment revealed that even with the parent there, absence of connection caused distress. Reconnection and engagement brought back a sense of normalcy and peace.
For prisoners of war, people incarcerated for crimes, individuals receiving inpatient treatment at hospitals, and students who receive punitive responses from teachers and school administrators, there is much more to contend with. In these situations, isolation has been a response to behaviors perceived as “bad.” While there has been so much research about the damaging effects of seclusion and restraint, these practices are still used. Isolation keeps us from those important connections – family and friends – with whom we need contact to feel healthy and to cope with stress.
It doesn’t take much, though. Even just slowing down to have a long hug or look into someone’s eyes can foster closer connections and understanding. The Four Minute Experiment paired refugees with people in the host country – strangers – to just sit in front of each other and to have eye contact for four minutes. The compassion, emotion, and openness that resulted was palpable. Young and old, the experience and result was the same – connection and kindness.
Kind human touch with those we trust has positive effects, both psychically and physically. Even brief contact can boost oxytocin levels in the brain, which can enhance the sense of optimism, trust, and self-esteem.
There are health benefits, too. When oxytocin levels are stable or elevated, this can reduce blood pressure, improve digestion, decrease intestinal inflammation, and reduce anxiety.
Healing connections don’t just happen between humans – our pets have a profound effect on our emotional wellbeing and happiness, as well. Dogs and cats have an intuitive sense of how we are feeling – typically based on eye contact, tone of voice, and body language. They will often find a way to move under a person’s hand – enjoying that touch and bringing about an immediate connection. Studies have shown the human benefits of dogs and cats to include lower rates of depression, lower blood pressure, increased serotonin and dopamine (this calms and relaxes), and lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (higher levels are associated with heart disease). And realizing their healing abilities, dogs, horses, and other animals have been used both in service (assisting disability) and in therapy.
Beyond the personal benefits, the bond between two people is what is needed for resilience over time.
Building Healing Connections
Since we know the power of connection to be healing, finding ways to make that happen is key to wellness and resilience. There are four main areas where healing connections can happen – and they can happen with just a little intention and focus.
There is some evidence that stimulating both sides of the brain can help facilitate emotional processing. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is probably the best known example of how this stimulation can be very healing. Brain use like this can also be seen in running, drumming, and even knitting.
Music can also help promote healing – both emotionally and physically. Research has identified some evidence that music can affect the physical body by easing pain, improving performance and endurance, speeding recovery, improving sleep quality, and increasing blood flow. Emotionally, music provides benefits like reducing stress, lessening depression, improving mood, stimulating thinking, and reducing anxiety. For people who play an instrument in a band or orchestra, the benefits are magnified by stimulating brain function and providing those human connections that are so important.
Many cultures recognize the importance of connection to elders and ancestors. Sometimes we call on our ancestors to guide our path, and other times we reflect on their experiences to understand where the family is today.
If we consider the inter-generational patterns of domestic violence and substance abuse, we can easily see how unhealthy patterns can seem quite normal and for children this becomes learned behavior. Most families have experienced some trauma. And for communities that have survived historical trauma – slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing – how survivors coped through atrocity can remain with a family. In fact, there is some evidence that trauma may alter DNA.
When we start to understand how historical trauma may have shaped our families, that’s the first step in recognizing ways of coping that might be compromising health and wellness. Some of those learned behaviors can be redirected to healthy ways of dealing with the difficult things life throws our way.
I believe the most important stage of the healing process is when we recognize and understand the dark experience and do something positive with it. It’s from that place that we recontextualize what might have seemed senseless and create a positive reinterpretation for what happened and what we do with it. Volunteering, advocating, donating – doing something positive nurtures post-traumatic growth.
Spending time with people – especially those with similar interests – can help to forge trusted and healing relationships. This can happen at a place of worship, a club or hobby meeting, a sport activity or game, or even in virtual spaces. Group support is so significant that it’s often incorporated into therapy for individuals with mental health concerns or substance use disorders, and for survivors of violence and other trauma experiences.
One example of this is the Ho’omau Ke Ola Native Hawaiian substance abuse treatment program. Like many western programs, they use cognitive behavioral therapy and 12-steps, but they weave the historical culture throughout their program. They learn the native language and traditions together, and garden in a sacred preserve. By working together – in recovery and as students learning cultural practices – deep, supportive bonds are forged.
Making space for time to connect with others who can relate and empathize – especially in programs and services for those seeking to heal and recover – is well worth doing!
Doing things together – especially when they are strengths-based – can build those healing bonds that build personal and community resilience. There’s a collective intention and momentum to get everyone to the same goal – and a joy that is celebrated by everyone when achievement is reached.
I have seen this personally in a community art experiment I started a couple of years ago called Art 4 Social Change. I decided to use an old French parlor game called "the exquisite corpse" as the process for creating canvases. Each canvas is divided into three sections – a head, torso, and feet. People in my neighborhood were given canvases and told to pick a section and paint about “healing from childhood experiences.” The topic was intentional, as to have participants focus on what kept them strong and helped them heal. When one section was done, it was covered, except for the tiny sliver of color and lines for the next artist to connect to. Oddly disjointed, the canvases tell a collective story.
The results from this process have been quite extraordinary. Nearly every participant has built personal resilience by thinking about the topic and sharing it with the community. Additionally, evaluation showed that after the artwork was unveiled and shared with participants, new relationships took form. Over time, these bonds were sustained and community resilience was achieved.
No matter what life may bring, it is our connectedness that helps us navigate through and to be resilient. I didn’t know this at the start of my journey to heal from violence, but I know it now, and I appreciate how just staying connected with family, friends, and community can have a profound effect on how life is experienced.
Helga Luest is an expert on psychological trauma and trauma informed care. She is also the survivor of a violent crime and domestic violence. She works with Abt Associates on federal contracts, where she serves as managing editor of SAMHSA News. She also hosts the website TraumaInformed.org, and she facilitates two “Trauma Informed” groups on social media (Facebook and LinkedIn). In her free time, Luest is raising her twin children, running marathons, and conducting collaborative neighborhood art projects to build resilience in her community.