Another week, another school shooting, more dead. A lot of heartbreak and agony. Opinions, discussions, arguments, demonstrations. I thought I’d weigh in from one art therapist’s perspective.

People are traumatized by so many things. Most people associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with war, child abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters. There’s plenty of that around. But people can experience trauma for many other reasons. Traumatic experiences usually involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves someone feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. Objectively there may not be any apparent reason for someone to feel traumatized, but it is the subjective emotional experience that counts. An illness, accident, loss, or humiliation can be the cause of trauma, for example. A sense of abandonment can be traumatic. As we have seen, bullying traumatizes many victims. Trauma is more common than we’d all like to admit.

Anger is a hallmark of PTSD, a response to feelings of powerlessness and the loss of a sense of safety. Alternating states of hyperarousal and numbing are common, intensifying chaotic and overwhelmed feelings. There is a pervasive sense that danger is all around. A fight-or-flight response, a physiological reaction to the threat, kicks in.

Back to volcanos:

vol·ca·no   noun

  1. An opening in the earth’s crust through which molten lava, ash, and gases erupt.
  2. Something of explosively violent potential.

Volcanos are by far the most common image I have seen in the many years I have practiced art therapy. A volcano is kind of a perfect metaphor. So many of the traumatized clients I have seen struggle to contain a rage which is pushing to erupt. Most live in fear of their own rage, terrified of destroying those around them.

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Some feel less aware of their own dormant volcanos, but their images convey that they may sense the impending shifting of tectonic plates that precedes an eruption.

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You would not believe the size of my collection of volcano drawings, most of which I don’t have permission to show you here. These drawings can be seen as self-portraits, as the depiction of the subjective experience of their makers. Most of these artists had a healthy fear of their emotional volcanos. I always thought this child directed a huge wave at his volcano to put out the fire and make it safe for himself and those around him.

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You help people by restoring safety, by helping them regain control, not by handing them the means to lose control and cause harm. People don’t want to cause harm. In my experience, they’re scared of their anger.

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When someone is suicidal, we take away the sharps. With so much trauma in our midst, let’s make sure we take away the guns.