More on Creative Blocks and Trauma/Depression

I think my most recent post was about daily habits and establishing something that works for you as a daily creative thing to do, even five minutes… So, continuing on with this series of posts about creativity as a healing process…

Creative Blocks and Trauma Related Depression

I think there is a connection between having a lot of trauma in your past and/or recent past, being depressed, and also having creativity blocks. This is a kind of depression that is not necessarily that noticeable although sometimes it is very much in the forefront of your life. For some people, it is a lowgrade depression, characterized not so much by depressing thoughts or great feelings of sadness and melancholy, but more like a kind of daily feeling of a lack of excitement and pleasure in your life. A person can get used to sort of feeling “ok” and functioning at work and with others but not really looking forward to anything or being very excited by much in their life. “Going through the motions” is part of it. Also a kind of low expectation for oneself that seems to creep up on the person slowly so that they notice they are older and don’t have a lot of “big dreams” or exciting plans for the future. Sometimes this manifests in “forgetting” to plan a fun vacation, going to work but not really liking your job while at the same time not hating it or thinking of other options. It’s also as though the idea of “other options” keeps receding and the person has stopped thinking of their “Bucket List” which may have just been things they were thinking of doing in their early 20s they didn’t end up doing and have developed a block about, such that they do not even think about other possibilities, even little things like taking a class in something new or something you liked as a “hobby” but gradually just stopped doing and “forgot” about…

The “forgotten life” is a sad part of this depression. It is easy to go about your day with blinders on and come home just tired, not expecting much, watching some tv, helping your kids with their homework but not getting much joy out of anything. Sometimes a person with this kind of depression is feeling ok or happy when with their kids and family or their dog or other animal companion and has moments of joy that are connected to these relationships but can’t muster up much gusto for doing anything for themselves. Even without depression, it’s easy to forget to talk to your parnter/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/companion about anything much besides the usual talk about daily matters.

This is an insidious kind of depression because it is not very obvious. The person seems fine and does not demonstrate the usual big red flag signs of depression, no sudden weight loss or weight gain, no sleep problems, no crying, no thoughts of death or suicide. The big connections with really bad depression are “anhedonia”, which means lack of ability to feel a sense of pleasure and enjoyment of things, as well as a kind of hopelessness, but unlike dramatic major depressive disorder, the person is barely aware of their hopelessness as it manifests in this kind of “blinders” not expecting much from life kind of attitude. In my experience of working with people who suffer from this kind of thing (and if a person actually goes to therapy, they do start to notice these little signs, but sometimes the person has gone to therapy for some other reason and has no awareness that s/he is also depressed in this way until later on in the therapy process), many people who have this kind of barely noticeable depression have also suffered from traumatic events in their life, ranging from terrible childhood trauma to small kinds of trauma that the person does not even consider to be unusual but nevertheless, these “traumatic” kinds of events have left a mark on the person. Early or later loss of a parent, the earlier the loss, the more traumatic, or loss of a sibling or love partner, surviving a fire, moving many times, dropping out of school and other even less obviously traumatic types of events, such as living with a partner with a significant chronic physical or mental illness or addiction, or being the child of a parent with such an illness, as it is easy to forget while being the caretaker, that you have also suffered. Children of such parents are also used to thinking of others as being sick and not noticing their own suffering.

Silent and unaware suffering is sad in a very different way from very dramatic kinds of suffering.  This depression that I have described is not only accompanied by undetected or worked through traumas but also very importantly, a lack of creative drive and a lack of creative activity in the person’s life. 

The magic of creative arts therapy is that I have seen such people suddenly awaken to themselves by starting to make art in sessions with me. Often it occurs after I have been working with an adult for quite a long time and established a trusting relationship and suddenly the person becomes interested in trying out some kind of art making, maybe out of curiosity from being in my art studio for so long, surrounded by art and art materials, sometimes at my suggestion. Often it probably starts as a desire to please me, especially in people who are used to trying to please others in their lives and not thinking much of themselves. I welcome this because I know that a person cannot create for very long just for another person, even their therapist, without experiencing a sense of enjoyment and pleasure that belongs to them and is witnessed by me. As this person starts creating, some changes start occuring that are purely related to the creative process and how powerfully healing it is. I know there are studies of creativity and brain activity, and I’m certain that the act of creating lights up places in the brain and awakens parts of the brain that were not being used much, even though I don’t have the scientific knowledge of this. I have witnessed too many magical transformations that are directly related to the person creating more, even if it is only once a week in the session with me. 

This is the magic and beauty of the creative process. Of course it feels like one is back in kindergarten, so the cliche goes, but it is wonderfully true, as many adults have not made any art since the age of 4-6. To bring a person back to Kindergarten is to bring them back to the Source of Creative Healing, to a feeling of safety and trust and even a wonder at what they have made. (See my post of the wonderful poem “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”)

These are the moments when I truly love my vocation and feel privileged to be witnessing such deep healing. No matter how long I do this, I am consistently amazed at the shift in energy in the room, at the sense of wonder creeping back into this person’s life and also touching me. 

On a personal note, I started making art as an adult around the age of 20, while being in college and consistently pretty depressed. A simple beginning drawing class with simple ingredients: lots of students but enough attention from a great teacher, low expectation of any kind of “realistic” type drawing, even positive reinforcement from the teacher and the assistants who loved most the images made by students that were unrecognizable as anything “real”, simply “marks on paper”, a phrase of the teacher’s that I never forgot, that had a profound effect on me. I had not thought of drawing or painting since kindergarten, probably had to do some art class in high school but I mostly remember noticing that I could take photography and avoid drawing and painting while in high school.

This elective art class in college changed my life in a profound way and is one of those moments on the journey of life that one sees later as a “marker” of a change in direction. The process of doing something non verbal and so pleasurable was so surprising and wonderful that it “woke” me up out of my depressive college “angst” at least to the point where I started drawing outside of the class to express some of this angst.

I mention this just to point out that the act of beginning to use one’s creativity in a different way can really stir up and awaken a little flame of excitement and “libidinal” creative energy and then the small flame becomes a fire, maybe quickly, maybe over time, but just lighting one little flame can really stir up the brain and knock out this kind of depression in a person to the point that s/he starts to have daydreams or quiet little desires to do new things or to enjoy little things, sometimes it results in a person taking out their guitar after ten years of no playing and playing it, or journaling daily or starting to write poetry. For some, it results in buying art supplies and having fun painting or collaging at home.

These little beginnings when fed and properly witnessed by the art therapist can result in some small or big shifts in a person’s life. The depression starts to get knocked off or dusted off, and the person starts to see more around him or her and inside him or herself. Like a small pebble tossed into a pond, the ripples go outward, the water gets stirred up and energized.

Thus begins a healing process and a slow or fast disappearance of the little depressive symptoms. Excitement and enjoyment of little things and/or big changes occur.

I strongly believe that this kind of depression is most helped by creating and bringing more creativity into the person’s life. Exercising, eating better, doing more besides the usual, that all helps too, and sometimes it actually comes along with the creative awakening. Medications do little to stir up this depression in most cases in comparison to what a few art supplies and encouragement from a safe, trusted art therapist can do.


After a lot of extraneous inner wrestiling with myself about this workshop proposal and whether I should even submit one (Questions like, do I really want to do this or do I just think I should be in this and doing it? Answer: don’t know. probably a little of both.), I talked to some colleagues who basically said, you’re overthinking it, just do it. Me: but I’m a therapist who doesn’t like talking in front of groups of more than about ten people, of course I’m overthinking this, and even if I wasn’t a therapist, I’m an artist, so of course I overthink everything and often arrive at the conclusion that anytihng requiring a lot of extra time and thought is just getting in the way of time that should be spent making art…

I went back to the website and just typed the answers to their questions. I stopped short of impulsively sending in the proposal right away which is what I’d be inclinded to do. I’m not going to overedit it, but it’s probably a good idea to wait a day and reread it once and find my resume before sending it in. Looking at my last blog post, I thought the writing in it was far better than the dry writing of the proposal but they limit the word count so there’s no room for metaphor…

Here is what I’ve written to submit: only missing the resume and photo

Proposal for Expressive Therapies 2013 Summit:

3 hour Workshop

 Title: Altered Books with Adults; Conquering Trauma and Creativity Based Depression

Presentation Description:

In this workshop, I will discuss how the medium of altering books in art therapy with adults can uniquely treat people suffering from low grade to serious depression that is connected with past and/or present trauma and a feeling of creative deadness or loss of the creative “spirit.” We will look at how this kind of depression is best healed through the creative process and what is unique about the altered book format that allows for the creative spirit to reawaken. I will discuss the role of the therapist in this process and through the experiential, I will invite participants to choose a book and begin to alter it. We will process the transformative experience of “messing up” and “destroying” a book to create something new and how it can jump start the creative process through the variety of options and the holding environment of therapy.


3 measurable objectives:

  1. Participants will learn about the connections between trauma and depression, kinds of depression that do not meet the DSM criteria but are very debilitating, and how this depression is rooted in a deadness of the creative spirit which was caused and triggered in a large part by childhood and current traumas, from severe trauma to less severe but serious trauma. They will learn to identify this depression in their work and how art therapy is uniquely suited to healing.
  2. Participants will learn about the technique of making “Altered Books”, including:

The importance of bringing in certain choices in books and how to present the project to their client, the difference in art techniqhes and media used to alter adult hardcover books versus children’s board books

3. Participants will choose a book and start the process of making an altered book so as to learn ways to identify different techniques that will “unlock” creativity and the importance of experiencing the making of an altered book first hand as well as the therapeutic value of making an altered book alongside their client.

Ideal Format and Preferred Length of Presentation:

This will need to be a hands on experiential workshop with time for explanation and discussion of topics presented and ample time for participants to actively start and altered book and share their process and experience with the group, so 3 hours is probably the best length.


Natasha Elena Shapiro, ATR-BC, LCAT, holds a master’s in Art Therapy and Creativity Development from Pratt Institute. She has worked in private practice for many years in her Tribeca art studio where she specializes in working with adults and children with a variety of emotional issues. As an Advanced Reiki Practitioner and a practicing professional visual artist, she views creativity as central to the healing process. She also facilitates an art studio based supervision group for professionals and an art therapy group for women struggling with anxiety and depression. Her studio space is an environment designed to be inviting and help with self-acceptance and relaxation.


Literature Citation:

Gioia Chilton MA, ATR-BC, Altered Books in Art Therapy with Adolescents, Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Volume 24, Issue 2, 2007, pgs. 59-63.


•  Art Materials Requests: Ideally a variety of hardcover books in any language as well as some early child board books, art materials including paint, brushes, scissors, colored tape, yarn, buttons and other embellishments, collage images. (Note: If some of the basic supplies are provided, I can bring in things like rhinestones, yarn, buttons, tape and collage images. In addition, if need be, I can find more books to choose from depending on the amount of people in the workshop.

Thinking it through: meandering thoughts for a workshop proposal…

Every year there is a big 3 or 4 day “Expressive Therapies Summit” held some time in the early November. Here is the website for the 2012 Summit:

The great thing about this Summit is the diversity of kinds of modalities, some even mixed together…Proposals for panels, lectures, talks, workshops etc. are due soon, and I was thinking of doing a workshop. I have a little time as the deadline got extended to Sunday, April 21. I had several ideas and then hit on something that has been percolating in me for a while now, mixing creative blocks which I have been working on with patients and others and writing and thinking about since even before I was in grad school. Then a newish topic I’ve been meaning to post about on this blog, my thoughts about a certain kind of depression I have been encountering and trying to elaborate on, that I have thought of as “existential depression”, trauma induced depression and finally kind of put it all together by thinking of it as (this will sound clunky because it is not a nice neat package of words): adult depression induced by multiple childhood and/or current “traumas” that causes a feeling of emptiness that is best addressed through the healing of the creative arts. It’s a kind of depression that can be very “light” and hardly noticeable to the person suffering or the people who know him/her, a vague feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction with one’s day to day life, a flatness and difficulty feeling engaged, excited, “turned on” by any aspect of life. This depression can also be quite different and accompany other challenges/disorders or seem like a regular kind of depression but it is characterized by not only the sadness, hopelessness and darkness of all depression but also a yearning for something to switch “on” and awaken the playful spirit or inner child to the excitement of the here and now. It can also be that the individual is depressed about other life events, relationships, family and career issues or addictions, obsessions, compulsions but coupled with it is a very conscious awareness of being blocked creatively. The person who loved writing has stopped writing and cannot get back to it after torturous months or years, or can’t paint or sing anymore. In this case there is an obvious feeling of hitting a wall and being “stuck” and wanting to get out but feeling hopeless and powerless.

The last mentioned experience I have been writing about in some posts recently such as the last post about establishing a “daily habit”.

What I want to address most of all though I’d like to have my approach be helpful for any of these types of depression, is the person who is not even aware that their depression stems from a lack of creative expression in his/her life. What amazes me about all the creative arts therapies is that by their very nature, they can heal this kind of depression in a way that traditional psychotherapy simply cannot, because the therapist and the modality of creative expression form the bridge for the person to awaken to his or her creativity. Adults who work at jobs that have nothing to do with any of the creative arts but who at one time or other may have enjoyed doing something creative, adults who never really explored their creativity since they gave it up in childhood, and adults who are engaged in some creative art form that can be visual art, writing, acting, making music etc.

I know this is meandering but the main point will be to explore experientially how the process of “Altered Book” making can uniquely heal this kind of depression. I have read quite a few articles and viewpoints on altered books and therapy and taken a few online classes about the altered book and seen how it can be healing for all kinds of people with all kinds of challenges. It is also very popular as an art therapy project for adolescents as it involves to begin with, ripping a book up or destroying and remaking a book, a real physical book that might have been on a bookshelf, nothing to do with computers or tablets! The beginning of the project as I’ve written here before, requires a sort of leap into one’s creative destructiveness, an animation of any tiny bit of rebellion inside yourself that can now come out through totally destroying and remaking a book.

So my workshop will address working with adults on altered books and how it can be a transformative experience for the complex kinds of creative block depression I just described. 

To some extent this workshop will be hard to do as one of the benefits of an altered book is that you work on it regularly over time. The other difficult part is how to articulate why being given a choice of books to alter and then altering it in the company of the therapist does anything to help people who are creatively blocked. At the moment the metaphor that comes to mind is that the book is kind of the personification of the block and the block needs to get kicked around, ripped destroyed remade to awaken the inner creative spirit alive in all of us…

To be continued…

My blog Featured in “The Communicated Stereotype”!

My blog Featured in “The Communicated Stereotype”!

Just wanted to announce that one of my blog posts was just featured in my colleague Anastacia Kurylo, PhD.’s great blog about diversity, multiculturalism and stereo tpying, “The Communicated Stereotype.”

I am happy to be included in this great blog that covers such an essential topic. It is everywhere. Just tonight Erin Burnett had a panel of people arguing about the new Barbie dolls that are supposed to feature different countries. The Mexico Barbie has a Chihuahua and the China Barbie has a panda. Is it a moment for education about other cultures or is it stereotyping on top of one of the biggest stereotypes ever marketed: the “Barbie” doll? Of course that could be the topic of a totally different blog post…

Anyway one of my multicultural rituals series posts, the one about different Easter rituals that I recently posted is featured on this blog. You can find it on the link above. It is also exciting to be featured on a blog that is outside of my field of therapy, art therapy, psychotherapy, healing, and in the field of Communications which has a lot of connections to our fields but is very different of course.

A Daily Habit, and the Wonders of “Model Magic”

In order to get over creative blocks, I usually recommend starting up a daily habit of doing something creative. You can choose a different modality if it’s too hard for example, to write something, if you’re a writer. Play your guitar 20 minutes or more every day, and make that your daily creative habit. For artists, pick a medium you are not currently trying to use again, or pick a medium you never use or even one you don’t like. Trying to paint with oils? Get some model magic and canvas boards big or tiny and play with the model magic and stick it on the canvas board. Model magic is a great thing invented by crayola, I really think their inventor had something great there. It’s like clay in that you shape it and manipulate it with your hands. One quality it has that can be frustrating is that it does not stay up without support. It’s great for making fun textures on a flat surface. It’s not messy like clay, so that appeals to lots of people. If you want to make a sculpture you need to find something as supports like toothpicks or sticks to wrap the model magic around to make legs, so if you want it to be part of your daily habit, I recommend starting by just playing with it like it is Silly Putty and then simply making textures and gluing them or sticking then on a surface.

If Model Magic does not appeal to you or you try it and want to do something different, or something you could do anywhere, including on your commute to work, I recommend getting some kind of sketchbook or notebook. I would look for something with a cover that appeals to you or if you get a plain one, have fun decorating the cover of it. Make sure it is small enough to put in your bag and carry it around with a pencil case or ziploc bag with markers, sharpies, pencils, any of these or a combination of them and make a daily mandala for example. Every day draw a circle and then fill it in. You can just color in the circle with a blue pencil and you’ve done your daily habit, or you can have fun doodling and making intricate patterns in it. Every day it can be completely different, but if it is small it won’t seem very daunting, so it may help with procrastination to just know that each day, you have made something new.

If circles/mandalas don’t appeal to you or get boring, you can do a scribble and then look in it for patterns, shapes, objects etc. and develop it into a drawing. If you like knitting, knit every day.

The object is to incorporate creativity into your life in a way that it will be easy to make it a daily habit in a good way, something fun to do even for five minutes. If it isn’t fun for you, you may want to try something different. Make sure it does not turn into a chore or “work”. Think of it as 5-10 minutes of play time.

You can do your daily creating any time of day, just try to do it daily. You don’t have to keep what you make. You can knit something and take it apart every day. Or you could sing for ten minutes, or put on music and dance.