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Recovering from Trauma: Using Art to Explore Our Environmental Security

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC


A sense of security and protection is crucial for human development and well-being. According to Bowlby, a leading psychologist and attachment theorist, "A child needs to feel that the people with whom s/he is connected are reliable and dependable, that they will be there to provide help and support when needed." From this quote, we can understand how a child’s caregivers provide a sense of security through their actions, attentiveness and attunement to the child’s needs. As we develop over time into toddlers, preschoolers, children, teens, and so forth, we start to become more aware of others and our external environments. We start to learn about what is safe or who is safe and what situations may be more dangerous, such as walking alone at night.


For some people, this need for security and protection from external, harmful forces may not be fully met due to various traumatic experiences. If we sense that our environment is unsafe, the people overseeing us are neglectful or abusive, or we lack a sense of security, this may lead to difficulties in trusting others, forming relationships, and feeling safe in the world.


After a traumatic event or series of repeated traumas, many people respond to their internal anxiety or paranoid thoughts by making decisions to increase their security and protection in their environment. This may be in the form of seeking out familiar surroundings, staying close to loved ones, or wanting to be in control of their surroundings, such as how close they sit near the exit or door. For some people, this may mean feeling a need for more security measures in their life, such as locking doors, checking windows, or being more aware of their surroundings. For others, it may mean wanting to avoid certain places or situations that remind them of the traumatic event. While these coping mechanisms may provide a sense of security and protection in the short term, they can also be limiting and interfere with daily life activities.


A secure and safe environment is crucial for people who have experienced a traumatic event. The sense of security and protection can help people to feel safe and calm, which is essential for healing. A safe and secure environment is crucial for both emotional and physical well-being. Feeling protected by those around us can help minimize the sense of danger and vulnerability that often accompanies trauma.


Cohen, Barnes and Rankin published a book entitled Managing Traumatic Stress Through Art: Drawing from the Center and in this book one can find a variety of art experience ideas as well as journaling prompts to assist in coping with and recovering from trauma. One section of the book in particular provides a wonderful directive that encourages the exploration of one’s feelings and associations with our current environment. The art directive is called “Environmental Protection” and requires the use of 2, 18”x24” pieces of paper, 2 12”x18” pieces of paper, acrylic paints, pencil, scissors and glue. The premise of the directive is to bring awareness to how one experiences the typical environments that one frequents often and to choose a specific environment to explore more deeply.


On one large piece of paper, it is suggested that one reflect on the various sensory aspects of the environment and then use various brush strokes and colors to depict that on the page with paint. The background is meant to be abstract and expressionistic rather than filled with identifiable shapes or objects. Then, the creator is directed to outline their feet on one of the smaller sheets of paper, cut the foot prints out and paint them in colors that would best represent how one feels in the environment. Once painted, the footprints are then meant to be adhered to the larger abstract painted image in any way the creator chooses. The creator is asked to think about the placement of the feet and reflect on whether the footprints suggest that one is feeling at ease, uncomfortable, out of place, etc.


The second half of the art directive asks that the creator envision physical and emotional ways in which the first environment could be improved in order to promote a stronger sense of safety, protection, satisfaction or security. The creator is then asked to paint the larger paper again with these changes in mind and to reflect these changes through abstract brush strokes using various colors. The individual is then meant to repeat the process of tracing their feet and painting them in colors that reflect how they would feel standing in this new environment.


The purpose and benefit of completing this directive is to highlight the emotional quality of a physical space that one might experience often and how adjustments and transformations in our environments can have a positive or negative impact on our emotional states and moods. It is important to recognize that one has the ability to problem solve and make necessary changes in one’s environment- living space, work, school, etc. in order to increase a sense of safety and security.


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