Visual Art and the Brain

Do you enjoy drawing, coloring, painting? So what if you are not a Picasso or a Van Gogh.  What I’m about to share with you just might inspire you to head out to your local art shop for colored pencils and a drawing pad. Research suggests that creating visual art enhances memory, and improves interactions between certain parts of the brain. Based on feedback from a small group of retirees, improvement in brain functioning may also strengthen one’s psychological state of mind.  This seems logical. After all, as researchers say, “The creation of visual art is a personal integrative experience—an experience of ‘flow,’ in which the participant is fully emerged in the creative activity.” With that integration, brain connections are strengthened, which, in turn, boosts self-confidence.

For individuals with a TBI, art is a form of therapy. It restores connections in the brain damaged by trauma. This restoration process is called neuroplasticity: the changes in nerve pathways of the brain that affect behavior. Yes, we can actually re-wire our brains by intentionally changing the way we think and do things. Since 2010, therapists at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), at Fort Belvoir, Virginia have been using art as a tool in treating war veterans who have sustained TBIs.

Art therapy does more than help to heal an injured brain. Jackie Briggs, a therapist at NICoE says, “For service members who might already have trouble expressing themselves … art therapy gives them a chance to use free expression, allowing whatever needs to bubble up from below the surface to be seen and evaluated.” When thoughts “bubble” up, service members gain a better understanding of their symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and depression. With that deeper understanding, their relationships benefit, because they are able to effectively unearth their buried feelings and thoughts.

At NICoE, service members decorate blank papier-mâché masks. The reasoning behind using this form of art therapy is based on how trauma works; it blocks the part of the brain responsible for speech and language. The image of the mask itself is tangible, a concrete method of showing how service members are feeling. As one of the therapists at NICoE says, “the masks have given service members a visual voice.” The added benefit is that they know they are not being judged, or critiqued. Making the masks affords them the opportunity to explore, engage in the process of creating something that encourages free expression.

The formof art doesn’t matter. Art is art. Juliet Madsen, a veteran of two wars who sustained a TBI when a roadside bomb hit her convoy, likes to doodle. In an email exchange with her this past fall this is what she had to say about doodling:

Doodling stimulates your creative side, allows your body to calm down, takes the active stresses and puts them on the back burner, can sometimes give you an artistic answer to your problems if you open to it, and gives you a time out… I am a big fan. Once you are an accomplished Doodle Artist take a set of colored pencils to your work or thin point sharpies, then you are really working it.

Juliet inspired me. I bought myself a sketchpad and sharpie and started doodling. I’m now a big fan too!

Are you a doodler, a painter, a sketcher, a creator of masks? If not, why not join in. Grab a sharpie, a pen or pencil, a paintbrush. As Juliet said, “Stimulate your creative side.”

Cheers to free expression, to an integrative experience – and to a healthy brain!

If you want to learn more about the masks service members have created, read the “The Invisible War on the Brain,” published in February 2015 by National Geographic.

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Cranial Sacral Therapy


Our bodies deserve to be treated with kindness. Right? If you are looking to do just that, whether you are living with post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury, chronic neck and back pain, migraines, or any other emotional or physical ailment, why not give cranial sacral therapy (CST) a try? Discovered in 1970 by osteopathic physician John E Upledger, CST is not as new-age as you might think.

I know, “cranial sacral” sounds nothing like new-age. You might cringe at the notion of someone messing with your neck and spinal column. But, with CST, there is no mess involved: back cracking, neck manipulation, muscle tugging. To help understand CST, I’ll interrupt here with a very brief lesson in Anatomy 101. More than most other parts of the body, the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system (CNS), influence the ability of the body to function properly. In turn, for the CNS to  function up to par, it relies heavily on a healthy craniosacral system: the membranes and fluid that surround, protect and nourish the brain, spinal cord, and the attached bones.

Since we endure stress every day – sitting at a desk for long hours, dragging a whining toddler through the grocery store, driving through bumper-to-bumper traffic – the body’s tissues tighten and create havoc in the craniosacral system. This can cause increased tension around the brain and spinal cord, interfering with the healthy functioning of the CNS, and even other systems it  interacts with.

With CST, the therapist uses her hands to evaluate the craniosacral system by gently feeling various parts of the body to assess for ease of motion, and for the flow of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Using soft-touch, she releases restrictions in the tissues, and mobilizes fluids around the spinal cord.

I’ve been curious about CST for a long time now, and, when I attended a workshop on CST at Vermont’s annual brain injury conference this past October, Kate Kennedy, the speaker, and veteran practitioner of the method, convinced me to consider it as an adjunct to alleviating my PTSD symptoms (hyper-vigilance, hyper-startle, nightmares) and a TBI (foggy-headedness, fatigue, poor concentration).

During the workshop, I learned, for CST to help heal our physical ailments, we need to let go of our emotions. Kate called them the “stuck places,” when she referred to the “emotions that take up space in our bodies” – in our muscles, tissues, bones. Vital to treating her clients, she asks them to talk about their individual traumas, as she feels for tight places, the places she senses being “over-charged.”  With the letting go of emotions, those tight areas also literarily let go.

Kate also reminded us that compensatory mechanisms influence the experience of the trauma. In other words, we possess layers upon layers of compensation before the trauma, and, for instance, how a migraine associated with a TBI heals depends a lot on what our past compensatory mechanisms were like. It’s not uncommon for people to hold onto the force of the injury – for example, neck tension.

The memory of trauma, pain, or any acute or chronic condition might very well be wrapped-up in your body. It’s true, our bodies hold our personal narratives. If we want to rid them of the upsetting narratives, or as Kate says, “The waste products of our central nervous system,” CST, with its gentle, listening approach can find those mucked-up places. I think of CST as empowering, as allowing you to gain access to your own body – the entire container of the self.

Are you ready to be empowered?

To find a CST therapist click here.


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Social Media and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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How often do you view social media sites? Two, three, five times a day? Do you have nightmares after viewing clips of school shootings or movie theatre bombings? Do you feel chronically uneasy, irritable, hyper-vigilant after watching unfettered displays of violence?

If this is the case, you might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yes, viewing violent news events on social media can cause PTSD. In a recent study conducted by Dr. Ramsden, a researcher at the University of Bradford in the UK, 189 individuals completed questionnaires regarding personality and violent news events such as 9/11 and suicide bombings. They also participated in clinical assessments concerning PTSD and vicarious traumatization, a term typically assigned to those who repeatedly witness trauma such as therapists, rescue workers, crisis clinicians, police officers, and nurses.

Out of the 189 participants, nearly one quarter of them scored high on clinical assessments of PTSD, showing that they were significantly affected by watching violent news events on social media. The more individuals who viewed violent events, the greater they were affected. Extroverts were also found to be at greater risk for developing PTSD.

Now that I’ve added a layer of worry to your day, (sorry), how do we protect ourselves from unrestrained acts of violence? Though, in June of this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of protecting free speech on social media and the Internet, we, as viewers, possess a similar freedom of choice, namely the freedom to make choices that protect our emotional well being. We can choose to walk away from our computers, iPhones, iPads, e-readers, and tablets. The challenge I pose to you is this: Can you shift your eyes from the screen, even for a day, and onto something else like a walk in the woods, a fantasy novel, or a crossword puzzle?



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Residue of Trauma


“I dream about blood.” That’s how Erin Maynard, Acting President and CEO of PTSD Survivors of America, begins her tragic story, “I Killed a Man and I Want to Die.” In 2008, she unintentionally drove over and killed a pedestrian on the Long Island Expressway. Maynard was heading home from her job as an editorial aide when she felt a “thump” below her car. That “thump” changed her life. That “thump” reverberates throughout her story. Maynard tells it to us straight, bares her soul on the page with stunning courage. Her story is so powerful, and dense, with the residue of trauma – post-traumatic stress disorder, post-traumatic growth, survivor guilt, forgiveness, and identity – that it must be shared. It must be shared so that others can better understand life after trauma.

To learn how Maynard picked up the shards of her shattered life, I encourage you to read her full story in The Spectrum.

Click here for Erin Maynard’s full bio. 

Do you have a personal traumatic story to share? If so, how has it changed you? What can we learn from your experience?

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Mindfulness Meditation for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries


Do you have post-traumatic stress disorder? A traumatic brain injury? Both? If so, and you can’t seem to rein in the scattered thoughts that disrupt your day-to-day life, you might want to try meditating. Mindfulness meditation – mentally focusing on the present moment – helps alleviate PTSD, and TBI, symptoms. In a study conducted with a large group of marines, researchers had them participate in mindfulness meditation training while monitoring their blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Stress-related neuro-chemicals were also measured. Not only did researchers find that the marines were calmer during and after meditating, but they were able to react faster when faced with threats. In other, smaller studies, civilians with TBIs were trained in mindfulness meditation, and the findings showed that nearly sixty-percent recovered from depression. Participants also reported less anxiety and more energy.

Researchers don’t know exactly how mediation alleviates PTSD and TBI symptoms, but they’ve noted that it helps to reduce cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress and depression. Meditation has also been shown to change the structure of the brain. Harvard researchers followed sixteen people in the general population who participated in an eight-week meditation program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. After completing the sessions, the researchers looked at magnetic resonance imaging studies of the participants, and found an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, as well in the other structures linked to self-awareness. Since 1979, more than twenty thousand people have completed the program. 

A few years after being diagnosed with PTSD and a TBI, I tried meditating, with the hope of slowing down the mental chatter, and getting rid of the self-critical voice that said, “You’re incapable.” But I gave up after the first day – a cascade of unfocused thoughts kept colliding with the other, more steady voice in my head that said, Breath, breath in and out. I told myself I had failed at meditating. The irony is that, with practice, meditation helps you to accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Also, meditation is not some kind of futuristic, Brave New World model designed to erase all thoughts – that’s expecting the impossible. Meditation helps you to view your thoughts from a distance, as if you were standing outside of yourself, watching your thoughts pass by like clouds.

Two months ago, a friend told me she had started meditating five months earlier because she could not live with being self-critical at work and at home. “It’s changed my life,” she said. Her exuberance was powerful, powerful enough to convince me to try meditating again. My friend told me about Headspace, an accessible, user-friendly app for Apple iOS and Android devices. Andy Puddicome, trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, is the founder of Headspace, and is the soothing voice that guides users through each session. You can try it for ten days at no cost. After that, there’s a $12 monthly fee. The caveat: you need to pay for the entire year upfront. But Headspace is always coming up with offers: two months free, for instance. Once you complete the thirty-session foundation packet, you can choose from various themed packets: creativity, relationships, performance, sleep. And you can meditate anywhere – I recently meditated in an airport while waiting for a flight. It’s been two months since I started using Headspace, and it works. Though I still experience moments riddled with “I should” or “I can do better,” by focusing on my breath, or on the sounds and smells around me, I’ve learned to halt any out-of-the-moment thoughts before they completely unravel. Headspace has made me feel a bit lighter, as if a whole lot of mud has been dumped out of me.

Meditation takes ten, fifteen, twenty minutes at the most out of the day. Most likely you not notice a difference right away; the transformation is subtle. So give it time. After all, time flows, and it always flows forward, toward change.



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Vitamin D Deficiency and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


Are you getting enough vitamin D? Low levels have been linked to depression, but researchers are now finding that vitamin D deficiency is also linked to psychiatric illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Vitamin D is formed from ultraviolet light and regulates calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Both of these minerals are essential for bone growth, and may help protect against cancer and diabetes. We need about fifteen minutes of sunlight a day to get an adequate dose of vitamin D, but wearing sunscreen (which is a good thing) blocks Vitamin D absorption. If you live in a state like Vermont, where the sun shines, on average, one hundred fifty seven days out of the year, you’re likely not getting enough vitamin D. You might want to try eating more foods with Vitamin D like cereals, milk, salmon and tuna. But food sources are usually not enough to provide the amount of Vitamin D we need per day. To see recommended doses by age click here. Though the upper safe limit of vitamin D is set at 800 IU per day, some sources advise we take as much as 1,000 IU a day if we are not getting enough sun exposure. But, as I mentioned in an early post about taking omega 3 supplements to treat a traumatic brain injury, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor first. The only way to really know if you are low in Vitamin D is through a blood test.

A 2008 study of fifty-three psychiatric patients revealed low levels of vitamin D. Though this is a small sample, it adds to the research showing an association between vitamin D deficiency and psychiatric illnesses like PTSD.

Hopefully, these studies come as a relief to those of you with PTSD – now you have another option, other than taking anti-depressants, to treat your symptoms.






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