“The man who has no imagination has no wings.”  – Muhammad Ali

Imagination is one of the great gifts of being human. It gives us profound joy and is like the exotic spices that turn a tasteless meal into a delight. If you’ve ever witnessed young children turn a trip to the dentist, a dusty walk, or a daily chore into an adventure, you’ve seen the power of imagination. It gives hope, helps us to forget troubles and focus on what really matters and prevents us from taking life too seriously. This playful capacity of humans brings us into our hearts and connects us with each other. Imagination helps us to create and express our inner world or something beyond ourselves.

“Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasising about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.”  Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

The imagination is deeply affected by trauma, and while trauma impacts everyone differently, interestingly it can be both positive and negative.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” – Carl Sagan

Features of the traumatised imagination

Trauma has a major impact on the imagination and memory. A traumatic experience shatters your sense of self and the world. Without the solidity of feeling secure, and the baseline of safety in your world, everything else is compromised. The effects of trauma such as hyper-vigilance, lack of sleep, physical deprivation, negative psychological outlook, emotional shutdown and numbness, of having an overly alert nervous system, or being unable to relax, have a profound impact on your quality of life.

Early childhood trauma even causes changes in the developing brain and later brain deficits.The first stage is the disruption of chemicals functioning as neurotransmitters, leading to greater stress responses in people and it has an impact on critical neural growth during important periods of childhood development.

Some common features of a traumatised imagination are numbing, psychic shut down – which limits creative expression, stuck modes of thinking, and high states of fear and adrenalin.

Trauma can also lead to:

  • Dissociation (splitting off or being disconnected with severed connections among your thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, and sense of identity),
  • Depersonalisation (a dream like feeling of being disengaged from yourself and your surroundings) and,
  • Derealisation (feeling that your surroundings are not real).

One of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, Bessel van der Kolk says that traumatised people feel chronically unsafe inside their bodies and can get stuck in negative cycles.

“Many of my patients have survived trauma through tremendous courage and persistence, only to get into the same kinds of trouble over and over again. Trauma has shut down their inner compass and robbed them of the imagination they need to create something better.“

Our intuition, gut feelings or instinct, alert us to what is safe and life sustaining. We are constantly receiving subtle messages to do with the needs of our body and wellbeing all the time. If we are cut off from these messages due to unprocessed trauma and the associated emotions, we don’t register these signals.

“[In traumatised people] the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside.” Bessel van der Kolk

Dr van der Kolk has conducted research into how trauma changes people’s perception and imagination, using Rorschach tests which give a unique way to observe how people construct a mental image from a meaningless stimulus.

Showing various ink blots to a group of war veterans, Dr Van der Kolk reported that over half of the veterans had flashbacks when viewing the pictures. They relived the original traumatic experience.

He says that the responses of a quarter of the group of veterans were more disturbing than the flashbacks, as they went blank and said they couldn’t see anything, describing the image as just an ink blot. “The normal human response to ambiguous stimuli is to use our imagination to read something into them. This is because we humans are meaning making creatures tending to create an image or a story out of things, just like when we’re lying on our backs dreamily watching the clouds pass by, we conjure shapes and forms.”

While trauma usually leads to shutdown and a numbing of psychological responsiveness, not every trauma will lead to impaired functioning. The experience of trauma can be a potent gateway to spiritual awakening and transformation.

“In both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, four pathways are said to lead to spiritual awakening. The first is death. A second route to freedom from unnecessary human suffering and come from many years of austere meditative contemplation. The third gateway to liberation is through special forms of (tantric) sexual ecstasy. And the fourth portal is said, by these traditions, to be trauma. Death, meditation, sex and trauma, in serving as great portals, share a common element. They are all potential catalysts for profound surrender.”  – Peter Levine.

Is Creativity an unexpected side effect of Trauma?

Many people experience a meaningful improvement in their psychological outlook on life after a traumatic or life-altering event. If we take the example of near-death experiences, some people say they have a far greater appreciation of life, more intense experiencing of daily life, almost as it they’ve gone from black and white to colour, and a powerful sense of purpose following such an experience.

In one study, Robert James Miller II and David Read Johnson noted an increased capacity for symbolic thinking in a group of 56 Vietnam War veterans who experienced PTSD. “Unexpectedly, subjects with PTSD in comparison to subjects without PTSD showed greater capacity for symbolic representation, and no difference in lexical capacity, raising new questions as to the mechanism by which trauma could increase the capacity for mental imagery.”

Another study by Dr Marie Forgeard investigated the idea that surges in creativity are linked to adverse life experiences. She used an online questionnaire where participant’s answers were used to measure post-traumatic growth, thinking about the event and growth of creativity.

She found that “… adversity-induced distress predicted self-reported creative growth and breadth, in a sample of online participants. Cognitive processing [intrusive/deliberative rumination] as well as domains of post-traumatic growth/depreciation—in particular, self-reported changes in interpersonal relationships and in the perception of new possibilities for one’s life—mediated the link between self-reported distress and creativity outcomes.”

There is even research and a hypothesis about the “orphanhood effect” which suggests that highly accomplished and talented people are more likely to have lost one or both parents at an early age. The orphanhood effect has been demonstrated in 32 famous mathematicians and seems to be particularly strong for writers, with 55 percent of writers studied, fitting the hypothesis.

It seems that some people unknowingly strengthen their ability to think symbolically, as a way to cope with their traumatic experiences. Imagination and symbolism are important parts of creativity.

Many highly creative people often link their inspiration to the tragedies they endured in their lives. The famed artist, Frida Kahlo, survived polio and had the heart breaking experience of enduring multiple miscarriages. Yet, she is one of the great painters not only of her generation but even today. Baroque composer John Sebastian Bach was orphaned at 9 years of age, and in later life, 10 of his 20 children died.

In her book, The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness, psychologist Alice Miller writes about the severe trauma experienced by artist Pablo Picasso at the age of three, with an earthquake and the flight from his family’s apartment to a cave where his sister was born in scary circumstances. “However, Picasso survived these traumas without later becoming psychotic or criminal because he was protected by his very loving parents [and] he was later able to express his early, frightening experiences in a creative way.”

We all know the tortured artist syndrome, and while working through the maze of trauma can help us open our hearts, deepen our authenticity and strength, and our sense of self, perhaps there’s the potential to glorify and dramatise traumas, as a way to create. Are artists addicted to their pain? In using art as a way to make sense of what happened to us, is there the danger of getting stuck?

In her article, Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist, psychologist Cheryl Arutt writes that Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering.

“Learning how to regulate internal states, how and when to use self-soothing techniques, and how to know when we are actually safe — these are key to emotional well-being for anyone, but for artists, they are especially useful. The ability to self-regulate provides an all-access pass for traveling the internal world, allowing the artist to mine for the gems that can be found there  . . . without losing touch with the light of day.”

Clinical Psychologist, professor and dancer, Paula Thomson, has been investigating the effects of stress on performing artists and patients with functional disorders: “The adage, ‘Fear is the enemy of art’ is often stated during the training of artists in an effort to increase their courage to explore new areas and to express new ideas. A creative individual with an early history of trauma has already encoded deep physiological and psychological fear states that often resonate during the creative process and within the early formation of the Self. These early attachment disruptions can profoundly alter the psycho neurobiological process of creativity.”

The impact of trauma is becoming more widely known and accepted today, and with greater numbers of people considered to be traumatised or living with PTSD, ways to heal and restore people to wellbeing, are vital. Psychological trauma is a major public health issue in the USA.

The Healing Journey

The very nature of trauma makes it challenging to heal. It can be difficult to access, the traumatised person is likely to be disconnected from the trauma, or numb, and in trying to help them to access the memory of trauma you can even re-traumatise them.

“Reliving the trauma without being firmly anchored in the present often leaves people with PTSD more traumatised. Because recalling the trauma can be so painful, many people with PTSD choose not to expose themselves to situations, including psychotherapy, in which they are asked to do so. A challenge in treating PTSD is to help people process and integrate their traumatic experiences without feeling re-traumatised—to process trauma so that it is quenched, not kindled.” – Bessel van der Kolk

This is where creative therapies, like art, expressive writing and music therapy are so helpful, especially when partnered with embodied practices like Trauma-Aware Yoga, Yoga Nidra, and breathing practices.

1. It’s vital to re establish ownership over your body and your mind.

Reconnecting with your self, your body, and its messages and establishing a sense of calm in your nervous system is key for healing. We need to learn how to remain calm in the face of stress, memory, sensations and other things that remind us of the past. We need to learn to inhabit our bodies, to reconnect with and listen to the messages we are receiving all the time. Practices like yoga, mindfulness, breathing, and supporting emotional regulation, help us to become still and forge a deeper somatic connection while programming trauma and the nervous system. As we release the hardened pattern of tension in the body, blood circulation is improved, the body becomes more oxygenated and the overall energy flow improves.

2. Connection.

It’s important to find a way to be engaged with the people around you, and to become more alive in the present.The more we can connect deeply with ourselves, accept ourselves, and grow in a loving relationship with ourselves, the more we can connect deeply with others, an important aspect for healing trauma.

3. Looking to our inner world.

Neuroscience is converging with spirituality, and starting to say what spiritual masters have told us for centuries. Recent research in neuroscience shows that the only way we can change the way we feel, is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learn to accept and make friends with what is happening inside us. The only way we can consciously access the emotional brain, is through self awareness. Instead of focusing on the outside world, we need to bring our attention to our inner world and get to know ourselves and the stories longing to be shared.

4. Imagination.

While imagination is affected by trauma, it plays a vital role in healing trauma. Psychologist Richard Miller, has successfully used psychological techniques, married with ancient Yoga Nidra practices, to develop iRest, a system that has proved resoundingly successful with PTSD in war veterans. In imaginative contemplation and visualisation, we can kind of become others, or another, while still remaining ourselves. In this way, we can reprogram and stop identifying with the images in our mind. The mind becomes more flexible and the hold of trauma or negative belief system lessens or disappears.

It’s no surprise that the journey of spiritual awakening will take you directly down the path to all your suppressed pain and trauma. A traumatic experience whilst disconnecting you from yourself and others, can also disconnect you from spirituality. Reconnecting to yourself and others, supports you to reconnect to a Higher Power and opens the floodgates of inspiration.

“The wound is the place the light enters you.” – Rumi