Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy

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Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy is a specific approach to traumatic stress developed by Dr. Cathy Malchiodi that integrates "brain-wise" arts-based interventions and embodied awareness concepts to support trauma reparation and recovery. Expressive arts therapy [the combined use of art, music/sound, dance/movement, enactment/improvisation, storytelling/narrative, play, and imagination] is the key psychotherapeutic strategy when addressing traumatic stress. It also integrates current best practices in trauma-informed care with what is known about how the expressive arts and play assist in trauma reparation and integration. 

In order to become qualified to practice Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy, please see our Certificate Programs and EXAT and EXA-CE designations that demonstrate competency in applying Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy in psychotherapy and counseling, education, and coaching on this website.

The Seven Core Concepts of Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy [from © 2020 C. Malchiodi Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body, and Imagination in the Healing Process]:

1. Neurodevelopment and neurobiology inform the application of expressive arts therapy to trauma-informed intervention. As previously stated, trauma is not just a psychological experience; it is also mind-body experience. The role of neurodevelopment and neurobiology are central to using the expressive arts to address trauma reactions and to assist individuals in reconnecting implicit (sensory) and explicit (declarative) memories of trauma. In particular, neurodevelopment provides a framework for determining how to apply expressive arts interventions to various goals of treatment, including when and how to support self-regulation and self-efficacy, positive attachment, and resilience-building. 

2. Expressive arts therapy is focused on supporting self-regulation and co-regulation. Over-activation, hyperarousal, general anxiety are common manifestations of not only posttraumatic stress, but also other trauma-related challenges. Expressive arts interventions are used to not only support individuals’ own internal resources, but also provide various creative, action-oriented approaches to self-regulation and co-regulation when applied within groups.

3. Expressive arts therapy is used to help identify and ameliorate the body’s experience of distress. Individuals who are experiencing trauma-related reactions typically experience the impact of these reactions not only in altered thinking, but also various somatic experiences. Because the expressive arts are “embodied” experiences, they are helpful in identifying and repairing the body’s responses to trauma.  In particular, key trauma-informed practices are: using expressive arts to support individuals’ bodies as resources and normalizing the body’s reactions to trauma as adaptive coping rather than pathology, 

4. Expressive arts therapy is used to establish and support a sense of safety, positive attachment and prosocial relationships. Reconnecting with a sense of safety is central to trauma-informed practice. In particular, expressive arts approaches are used to help individuals recover a sense of well-being internally and in relationships with others. This also includes providing various opportunities for the individual to engage in creative experimentation that integrates experiences of unconditional appreciation, guidance, and support, experiences found in families with secure attachment relationships. When applied as group interventions, expressive arts support prosocial interactions and connect individuals through community.

5. Expressive arts therapy is used to support strengths and enhance resilience. Trauma-informed practice encourages helping professionals to see all individuals as capable of growth and reparation. It also holds the concept of resiliency as central to recovery. Expressive arts interventions are life-affirming and honor individuals’ capacity for resilience and personal strength by encouraging mastery with a goal of moving individuals’ self-perceptions from victim to survivor to “thriver”.

6. Expressive arts therapy respects the individual’s preferences for self-expression, particularly of trauma narratives. Trauma-informed practice emphasizes the role of individuals in their own treatment and their preferences for participation; these preferences are determined by culture, previous experiences, worldviews, values, and other dynamics. Arts-based approaches offer a variety of ways for expressing “what happened” dependent on the individual’s comfort level with self-expression. These therapies also respect the use of personal metaphors and symbols that allow individuals to control how they communicate sensitive experiences.

7. Expressive arts therapy provides meaning-making experiences and ways to imagine new narratives, post-trauma. As previously stated, expressive arts in particular allow individuals to convey what is often unspeakable. They also allow survivors to explore, restructure, reframe and re-story trauma and loss through non-verbal, asset-driven, participatory and self-empowering ways.


The Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute is dedicated to professional education and distance learning based on this model of Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy.

EXAT and EXA-CE

Are You Interested in Completing Training in Expressive Arts Therapy or Expressive Arts Coaching and Education?