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  • Jessica Calderaro

Healing Traumatic Experiences Through Creative Expression



Adverse childhood experiences, further referred as ACEs, by definition, are experiences between the ages of 1 and 17 that negatively impact youth and by extension their development into adulthood. These experiences are defined by their potentially traumatic nature, and speak to systemic issues within families as well as isolated events. ACEs are, unfortunately, common, with 64 percent of adults reporting at least one adverse childhood event, and at least 1 in 6 reported experiencing 4 or more (CDC). An increase of ACEs can impact health conditions, future development, and potentially even increase the risk of substance abuse or thoughts of suicide. What are adverse childhood experiences though, and how can we do the work to prevent them? 


ACEs can be broken down into 3 categories; 


  • Types of abuse:  including physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. 

  • Types of neglect: including physical neglect and emotional neglect. 

  • Household dysfunction: including a member of the family dealing with substance abuse, going to prison, experiencing a divorce or being involved in domestic violence. 


Of these three categories, the ACE questionnaire gains information by asking ten questions, with the score depending on which experiences one can relate to between the ages of 1 and 17. A higher score is understood to correlate with risk of developing various behavioral, mental and physical concerns into early and late adulthood. These risks include obesity, suicide attempts, heart disease, chronic lung disease and cancer. Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences can negatively affect genetic expression, which is the major contributor to the development of these concerns. These experiences can disrupt a child's sense of safety, security, and trust, leading to profound consequences on their development and functioning. (Joining Forces for Children). 


It is of course possible to fight through those odds and overcome them. One

such story of triumph over adversity comes from a celebrated figure whose journey

embodies the resilience born from adversity. Born into tumultuous circumstances, the

acclaimed actor and humanitarian, Oprah Winfrey, emerged from a harrowing childhood

marked by poverty, abuse, and instability.


Oprah Winfrey's early years were difficult. Raised in rural Mississippi by her

grandmother, she endured episodes of physical abuse and other traumas at the hands of her family members. To get through those circumstances, she turned to art and books, narrowing her craft to bring us the works we know today. She is quoted as saying turning to her higher power allowed her to transform out of those circumstances.

Despite facing seemingly insurmountable odds by the tremendous weight of her

adverse childhood experiences, Oprah's resilience pushed her out of those

circumstances. Through this resilience and her coping skills, she ascended from poverty

to become who we know her to be today.


Through Oprah’s story, it is clear that high ACE scores does not necessarily contribute

to a life sentence of hardship, however being able to connect with some form of creative

expression can be an important aspect in healing. Creative expression is an amazing

form of coping that, with assistance and professional help, can lessen the impact ACEs

have on emotional development.

 Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences can negatively affect genetic expression...These experiences can disrupt a child's sense of safety, security, and trust, leading to profound consequences on their development and functioning.
 

Here's how creative expression can positively interact with ACEs:


Art as a Therapeutic Outlet: Art therapy provides a non-verbal means of

expression for individuals who may find it challenging to articulate their feelings

and experiences verbally. Through painting, drawing, sculpture, or other visual

arts, individuals can externalize their internal struggles, fears, and emotions. The

process of creating art can be cathartic, allowing individuals to release pent-up

emotions and gain insight into their experiences.


Writing as Self-Exploration: Writing offers a safe and private space for individuals

to explore their thoughts, memories, and emotions related to ACEs. Journaling,

poetry, memoir writing, and storytelling can help individuals make sense of their

experiences, reflect on their journey, and find solace in their own narratives. Writing allows individuals to reclaim their voices and identities, transforming pain

into resilience and empowerment. Oprah Winfrey utilized this skill in the writing of

her book What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and

Healing.


Music as Emotional Expression: Music has the power to evoke emotions,

memories, and sensations that may be difficult to access through words alone.

Playing musical instruments, composing songs, or simply listening to music can

provide comfort, validation, and a sense of connection for individuals who have

experienced ACEs. Music therapy techniques can help individuals regulate their

emotions, reduce stress, and foster healing through rhythmic expression and

creative exploration.


Dance and Movement as Healing: Dance and movement offer a somatic

approach to healing ACEs by reconnecting individuals with their bodies and

physical sensations. Through dance therapy, individuals can express and release

stored trauma, tension, and pain while cultivating a sense of embodiment, safety,

and self-expression. Movement practices such as yoga, tai chi, or somatic

experiencing can help individuals regulate their nervous systems, increase body

awareness, and promote relaxation and grounding.


Community and Connection Through Creativity: Engaging in creative expression

within a supportive community or group setting can foster connection, empathy,

and validation for individuals who have experienced ACEs. Creative workshops,

support groups, or community arts initiatives provide opportunities for individuals

to share their stories, learn from one another, and cultivate a sense of belonging

and solidarity. Collaborative art projects can also promote social cohesion and

collective healing within communities affected by adversity.


So while yes, we are capable to overcome our lived traumatic experiences, one of the primary aims of the ACE study was to identify means by which to prevent these experiences, with the goal to reduce the resulting medical and behavioral consequences later in life. 


Prevention is a multi-faceted concept, which boils down to both systemically eliminating the circumstances that lead to ACEs, as well as building resiliency in family systems to prevent the stress of these conditions from turning into toxic stress, defined as “excessive activation of the stress response system” (Harvard). Simply witnessing or being a part of these events does not necessarily directly cause the extended concerns, the main prevention comes from eliminating toxic stress. 

One of the primary aims of the ACE study was to identify means by which to prevent these experiences, with the goal to reduce the resulting medical and behavioral consequences later in life. 

Being a part of change efforts to eliminate poverty, increase education and outreach and ensuring that children have access to support within their home and community is a major aspect of prevention. Preventing toxic stress can also be as simple as having a supportive adult to help navigate through these situations as they happen, but can also look like seeking assistance later in life from trained professionals. 


Here at NJ Recovery & Wellness, we have numerous clinically trained professionals who have expertise in a variety of areas, including trauma processing, and can be an aide to walk a person through these and other life events, making meaning of them and reshaping their impact. 

 

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, June 29). Fast facts: Preventing adverse childhood experiences |violence prevention|injury Center|CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

What are aces?. Joining Forces For Children. (2018b, March 29). 

What are aces? and how do they relate to toxic stress?. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2020, October 30).

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