Body Mapping is a technique used by art therapists to help clients illustrate, identify and voice their pain. Working with people who suffer from chronic pain, I have learned to recognize the connection between emotional trauma and the physical symptoms that may also exist.
My 42 year old client Christine* suffered with painful abdominal symptoms to the point where she felt immobilized by her physical pain. She became overwhelmed and was unable to continue working as an elementary school teacher. Eventually, the pain became so unbearable that she had to quit her job and became housebound. Feeling depressed, her psychiatrist suggested she try art therapy to help express her feelings. Verbal therapy was stalled because Christine’s pain and depression did not abate, even with the help of medication.
When Christine began therapy with me she believed her depression and chronic pain stemmed from early childhood trauma. She spoke of consistent lower pelvic pain, but was resistant to traditional treatment by her physicians. After completing the initial drawings that I usually require of new clients, I asked her to draw a body map – an outline of a human form, (cookie cutter shape) and then asked her to describe the pain she was feeling with colors and lines; placing the lines at the approximate points on her body where she felt pain. This was in important first step, because when pain is attributed to emotional trauma, it’s better to illustrate the pain to help people “see it.”
I asked her to come prepared for the next session by using her body map image to write about her pain. I instructed her to share her thoughts about the pain, and what she felt the pain was trying to tell her – what the pain wanted her to know.
When Christine returned the following week, she read her description. She expressed that the pain felt “hot and angry” and that it wanted to be heard, that it was screaming at her, but she didn’t understand the language. Christine shared that she felt frustrated, but I encouraged her not to give up, and that I would help her discover what her pain was communicating to her.
That night, she had a nightmare about a trapped child crying alone in a dark tunnel. The following session we discussed the dream. As Christine talked about her nightmare she became tearful, she was tapping into a childhood memory of being left alone in her room, in the dark, essentially vulnerable and unsafe. The dream had triggered a painful memory of childhood sexual abuse.
Christine was shocked by this revelation, because she felt she had resolved the sexual abuse years ago. I explained that she may have addressed the sexual abuse earlier, but the untreatable pelvic pain was proof that her trauma wasn’t resolved. We discussed how her body had been holding onto the pain of her abuse because she was unable to express anger towards her abuser. Christine realized that the chronic pain was indicating that it was time to express that anger and release her feelings. She no longer had to hold onto the anger and store it within her body!
After this session, Christine was able to give herself permission to feel angry, and her whole body seemed lighter. I continue to work with Christine on expressing her emotions in a healthy way, but it has not been an easy process. However, the more she honestly expresses herself, the more her physical symptoms decrease. This has been an ongoing journey and I feel grateful to be able to assist her along the way.
Listen to your body. Never ignore physical pain. Understand that some forms of chronic pain are rooted in emotional trauma that can be illustrated, given a voice and healed!
If you, or anyone you know has ever been abused or traumatized, please seek professional help immediately.
Thank you for being here.
Karen Stabley, Art Therapy (ATR)
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