Trauma Therapy Sees Artists Of Colour Turning To Art Practices Of Their Cultures

Canadians share how they've processed pain from war, grief and abuse.
Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier, is well-known for his musical career. During the pandemic, he's focused on adapting African traditions for dance therapy as a form of mental wellness that he shares in his meditation app My Life Is Art.

Content warning: The following story contains mentions of a suicidal attempt, as well as violence, abuse and death.

“I had no good memories. My mom died and everyone was suffering.”

Emmanuel Jal’s past life as a South Sudanese child soldier was marred with tremendous violence, inflicted upon him and his family members by a guerilla army during the second Sudanese civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2005.

For years, he and other children were forced to operate firearms and walk minefields, all the while starving and seeing the dead everywhere they went.

One moment of despair was so deep he almost died by suicide as a youth, saved only by his gun jamming, the now 40-year-old recalled.

But long after the war was over and he had left his homeland for safety — first to Kenya, then England, and finally, to Canada in 2012 — Jal found himself on the front lines of “a battle with the mind,” as he puts it.

Flashbacks and nightmares distressed him constantly, robbing him of focus when he attended school. The immediate danger of bombs and armed forces was gone, so why was he still troubled by his experiences?

“I was a child soldier, I never had an opportunity to be a child,” he said. “I wish a teacher asked me, ‘What is in your mind?’”

The answer to that unasked question, he realized when he was older, was trauma and stress responses to traumatic events, he told HuffPost Canada, can affect anyone from any walk of life, echoing long after the initial episode.

How BIPOC trauma gets ‘digested’

Studies have shown that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), especially Black and Indigenous people in particular, are likely to report high levels of stressful events stemming from covert and overt racism experienced first-hand, vicariously felt by witnessing violence happening to others, or passed on from previous generations ― for example, the residential school system’s devastating impact spans across decades, long after it ended; growing research indicates that parents who are traumatized can pass down “epigenetic changes” to their children.

Daily systemic discrimination, which can look like microaggressions or overtly exclusionary policies that only people of colour experience, can add to mental health burdens. Pushing pain down that results from these situations, in order to get through the day, has been described as “death by a thousand cuts.”

Aside from the well-reported post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms of hypervigilance and flashbacks, trauma can leave a physical mark. Studies on people with PTSD show that the body’s response to trauma can lead to disregulated nervous systems that are always in survival mode; elevated stress hormones that lead to weaker, compromised immune systems; brain-altering side-effects that cause mood swings, memory problems and intrusive thoughts; and chronic diseases.

Watch: five mental-health resources for BIPOC. Story continues below.

This strain and constant flood of stressful hormones takes a toll on bodies that’s known as “allostatic load;” always being on high alert and pumping out stress hormones can develop into constant exhaustion.

What types of therapy can help?

Seeking professional help for trauma, by way of therapist visits, cognitive behavioural therapy, or psychiatric medication, can be helpful. People of colour may find that culturally-centered therapy programs, such as Black Space Winnipeg’s Project Heal and its currently virtual program for Black Winnipeg residents co-run by family therapist Leslie Hackett, can be especially affirming.

Talk therapy can be helpful for those who find relief and clarity in conversations, but so much of trauma goes beyond language. Research into the linguistic links indicate that people may not be willing to talk about trauma due to shame, avoidance, not wanting to burden others, feeling ignored, or feeling a lack of “common ground” with the listener.

Should talk therapy be challenging to access or not enough to fully help with recovery, as Toronto-based somatic therapist Karishma Kripalani notes, some may wish to address how bodies process trauma, through self-directed treatment.

Somatic therapy is an approach to trauma treatment that pays attention to a body’s response. As a healing justice practitioner, Kripalani’s not looking for her clients to completely “get over” trauma. Rather, how they gauge their own recovery or transformed mental outlook is key to every session.

“I see trauma as undigested life experience,” she told HuffPost Canada. “Trauma and grief are really big things that we can’t hold in by ourselves. If there’s a bigger container or more capacity, it’s easier to digest.”

For Kripalani, the container is a metaphor for one’s capacity to process trauma ― increasing capacity translates to building resilience or a skillset to draw on to make the worst aspects of trauma subside. Increasing your capacity to deal with unprocessed trauma, or your container, she suggests, can be done by connecting with others to express what you’re feeling, often in non-verbal but physical ways ― be that through collective arts, such as group dance, or artistic crafts that involve audiences.

How bodies process trauma

An often-quoted passage from the bestseller The Body Keeps The Score by psychiatry professor Bessel Van Der Kolk echoes this: “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies ... in order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

Paying attention to the signs bodies give when they’re overwhelmed by trauma can be challenging at first, as many people will have adapted different coping mechanisms to perceived threats. Some may choose “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn;” four common stress responses that bodies reflexively rely on to keep safe.

Others may realize trauma is influencing them through how they don’t feel. Dissociation is a symptom of PTSD and figures heavily in diagnoses of C-PTSD, or complex PTSD. This term refers to a type of PTSD that arises from chronic experiences of trauma inflicted by those close to you, such as that experienced by those in forced captivity or who live with abusers.

HuffPost Canada spoke to some BIPOC Canadians whose cultural artistic practices help them process trauma through getting them in touch with their own bodies. Here’s what they had to say:

Emmanuel Jal: ‘Dance restores me to the present’

“I believe I survived for a reason” was the mantra Jal found comfort in after his suicide attempt, when intrusive thoughts felt unbearable or when school was challenging. Its importance in his life can be heard, as his mantra transforms into a refrain in his 2008 song, “War Child.”

Making regular, positive affirmations a habit is something Jal strongly advocates for as an informal form of talk or narrative therapy but it is only one part of recovery for him.

“Trauma and mental stress shuts down the faculties of our mind … [Black Canadians] and Africans, we all have trauma. You’re told slavery is abolished, but every time you wake up you’re reminded that the system will pull you down,” he said, on grief following George Floyd’s death.

When trauma is ongoing or doesn’t make sense to us, “top-down” talk therapy — the most conventional form of therapy, wherein a therapist talks with a patient about how they think ― needs to be joined with the “bottom-up” approach, which seeks to address how safe a traumatized person feels in their own body. The latter may involve encouraging awareness around how the body reacts and balancing emotional responses.

“You [can’t] talk trauma out of the body, it needs to move through you,” Jal explained.

To encourage that movement, he uses music as a medium that “re-programs” what the brain fixates on. Music alone as a therapy tool has been praised for boosting moods and stress reduction, but Jal finds it the most useful when paired with dancing which a 2018 literature review reveals can assist traumatized children in developing essential body regulation skills. He’s developed his own style called “yaya,” which combines yoga, African traditions, and breaks for self-reflection.

“When you dance, you’re not looking around. You’re focused on enjoying the sound and what your body feels,” he said. “My anxieties, my fears are gone. I dance when I’m happy, sad, need to be courageous ... when I dance, it restores me to the present.”

Emmanuel Jal, seen pre-pandemic, leading participants in a guided dance and yoga session.

Making one’s mind and body feel present is a major perk of using dance to supplement trauma therapy, as it can give someone the language to express reflections on memories that feel too painful to voice.

“Art, music, drama, and dance act as a translator to the speechlessness that comes with terror and fragmented memories... bottom-up approaches allow the body to speak non-verbally and heal from the trauma, in combination to the traditional cognitive aspects,” author Katrina Guittar writes, in the introduction for a Lesley University review of dance or body movement therapy for trauma therapy.

Guittar’s review finds that research on dance as primary treatment is still growing, but appears promising; what’s already known is that dance exercises, or body movement therapy, can improve someone’s ability to mind their moods.

Music, dancing, and positive self-talk come together in My Life Is Art, a meditation app that Jal finished developing recently. The app includes meditation guides, as well as motivational stories told by Jal and dance segments users can follow along with.

Through it, he hopes people can find the peace he’s able to draw on.

Sheri Osden Nault: ‘There can be some sort of catharsis in feeling seen’

As a kid, Sheri Osden Nault would sketch whenever they felt unsafe. The act of putting pencil to paper was meditative for the Two-Spirit visual artist, a therapeutic state that art still immerses their body in today.

“It’s very grounding ... I feel present in my body; the usual anxieties about life don’t take up space because art-making is important for me to give space to,” they said, adding that the interactive element of art — as something that takes on new meaning when beheld by others — also makes them feel connected to community.

Nault’s most recent project for a queer performance art show immerses them even more, as they become the art itself. As part of the piece, Nault took to Instagram Live in late July and named 110 people: all Indigenous, all suffered Canadian police-involved deaths in the last two decades. While doing so, the Michif and mixed European performer removed beaded accessories from their body that symbolize each person.

A screenshot of Sheri Osden Nault's performance in late July.

Community care and healing was a priority for Nault, who didn’t want to appear as authoritative on the matter. They consulted with others on the best way to honour those who suffered violent ends and how to pay respects in the Michif language, on top of putting out work that was deeply personal.

“I hope for those who see it that there can be some sort of catharsis in feeling seen. There’s pain associated with these difficult things our community goes through and I hope it takes that pain elsewhere. Somewhere that doesn’t feel like a wound,” they told HuffPost Canada, prior to the performance.

Embodying the art has been a salve for Nault, as has the process of making it.

“I think connecting to something nourishing in a stable way is incredibly important while surviving ongoing hardship and trauma,” they said.

Art that visualizes a narrative or a deep pain has been studied for its effectiveness in trauma recovery, as it can give language to what may be too hard to say with words. It has been used effectively in talk therapy sessions to encourage healing dialogue; Psychology Today writer Cathy Malchiodi notes that in her practice, she may ask a client to use “colors, shapes, lines or mark-making” to show where they hold emotions in their body.

As Nault understood it growing up, their father experienced a mental health crisis and their mother immediately called the police for help. A recent family chat revealed that their mother waited until the next day to call.

Nault said they loved their family tremendously, but would feel alienated by them because of how they themselves were hurt by intergenerational trauma and hardships. Thanks to the act of making art, specifically this performance piece, some family rifts are getting smaller.

“I’ve been in awe over the unexpected healing because of the conversations we’ve had,” they said. While acknowledging that change doesn’t happen overnight, the artist said they looked forward to future mending. “My dad and I have been texting about our family all week.”

Falefitu Taefu: ‘I try to find a way to keep going through my art’

Falefitu Taefu can trace his lineage back to the first tufuga tatau, a revered tattoo artist role in Samoan culture, and learnt the craft at a young age.

But for Taefu, his connection to culture is complicated by experiencing abuse as a child. “It’s my greatest pride and my greatest source of pain,” he said. “I love my family and I love my culture, but growing up in my household, we never expressed our problems.”

When he’s tattooing others, Taefu told HuffPost Canada he’s very much aware of his body in the moment and his surroundings. That awareness helps alleviate his C-PTSD symptoms.

Like Nault, the first time Taefu realized tattooing was healing came through how his body would feel at peace when he put needle to skin.

“When I came to Canada and started taking tattooing seriously, I noticed how it became more therapeutic for me ... doing large pieces would be meditative because the lines and symbols were repetitive,” he explained. “It offered me a way to zone in and focus on just my art.”

Tattooing was an anchor for Taefu when he tried to seek professional help, often finding himself frustrated with psychiatrists who didn’t understand his life experiences. And it continues to be there for him in his current chapter of life, where he’s found himself comfortable talking to a psychologist.

“I’ve made room to accept what she’s had to offer and apply it to my life,” he said. “As men we put up this tough exterior, where we don’t like others to help … we have to talk about what we’re going through in order for us to grow. I try to find a way to keep going through my art.”

Julay: ‘The surfacing of markings is a release of wounds’

Grounding exercises, prayers, and offerings to ancestors are all part of a typical tattoo session with Julay, who goes by just their first name and runs Sacred Spirit Ink, a practice that many people seek out to get inked for trauma-releasing purposes.

For Julay and many others, the very act of tattooing one’s body is a ceremonial form of “grief work:” A bloodletting process used to help people cope, where what’s inked is connected to their departed loved ones and a reminder of ancestors.

“The surfacing of markings is a release of wounds old, new, transcestral [relating to trans ancestors], ancestral and intergenerational,” they said.

Getting tattoos for closure is something that’s been observed as a trend among many who experience trauma, such as breast cancer survivors and assault survivors. The reasons for this are varied, but can include reclaiming ownership over one’s body or to have a symbol of special importance available as a constant reminder.

The cultural reconnection healing tattoos can facilitate is important for the Filipino tattooer, who experienced this firsthand and imparts it to others.

“Part of our trauma as a community is shame … because of colonization, a lot of us in the diaspora don’t know our ancestry, and that is OK. If you connect and seek this healing with intention, that is enough to be deserving of this medicine.”

Julay said that healing with intention ultimately means having a purpose to whatever therapeutic approach one takes on. While their craft may not have quantifiable results, they noted that their customers appear to be visibly happier at the end of a session.

Julay said they support BIPOC Canadians who choose to access any form of therapy, but that healing on their own terms needs to be decolonial and affirming of trans ancestors ― in many cultures’ histories, people who may be described in modern vernacular as trans, trans femme or non-binary had roles as healers, a legacy Julay believes need to be honoured in present day.

That goes hand-in-hand with unlearning oppression, acknowledging one’s connection to the traditional land they live on in their case, Unceded Coast Salish Territory of the Qayqayt First Nations or New Westminister, B.C., — and uplifting marginalized people.

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