Opinion: Free Arts Uses Art to Positively Impact Youth

Credit: Getty images/gilaxia

By Jenna Christie-Tabron

March 14, 2024

March is National Youth Art Month, an opportunity to promote art education while recognizing and celebrating art and its impact on youth across the nation. Art has been revered as its own language, providing individuals, especially children and adolescents, with an avenue for self-expression and communication. It is another way to depict thoughts or ideas and convey complex emotions that may either be unexplored or too strong to articulate.

At Free Arts, we use the healing power of art to make a lasting positive impact on the lives of those who have experienced trauma. Unfortunately, many of our program participants have had adverse childhood experiences which often included situations that resulted in something called toxic stress: the frequent or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system. 

When toxic stress occurs, it causes the lower part of the brain to be repeatedly activated resulting in reduced connections and underdevelopment of other parts of the brain that are responsible for functions such as learning, attention, focus, memory, and decision-making. This underdevelopment impacts behavior, emotion regulation, and cognitive and social development. 

However, through a conceptual process known as neuroplasticity, art can help the brain establish new neural pathways to improve cognitive functioning, promote healthy thinking and behavioral patterns, and facilitate the development of emotional resilience.

The use of art in resilience-building activities has become an effective coping strategy for managing stress while also allowing participants to regulate their emotions and engage in mindfulness. Observing, experiencing, or engaging in art has the healing potential to enhance brain function in several ways:

  • Triggers a rise in serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that helps to regulate mood and reduce feelings of anxiety and depressive symptoms.
  • Increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain which is responsible for multiple functions such as emotional balance, impulse control, decision-making, and reasoning skills.
  • Releases dopamine, the “feel good” hormone associated with pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation.
  • Reduces cortisol levels. When cortisol levels spike because of toxic stress, the body experiences persistent inflammation which leads to increased infections and decreased immunity.

All art forms—including painting, drawing, sculpting, photography, and music—can have the same neurasthenic effect on cognition and emotions. However, considering that the effects of toxic stress are stored in the body when triggered, that trauma is also re-experienced in the body. 

Performative art forms such as dance can be particularly effective in improving negative psychological symptoms and relieving physical tension and aggression in the body. Dissociation is common among those who have experienced trauma. It is described as a person’s disconnection from their thoughts, feelings, memories, behaviors, and sense of identity.1 

 

However, movement can help improve these symptoms by helping children be physically present and aware of their senses while regulating their emotions. For example, improvisation dance allows children to exercise choice and control, which enhances confidence in decision-making skills. Choreographed movements improve memory functions, and interpretative dance enhances creativity and communication skills.

 

Many children, particularly those in the foster care system, have a diminished sense of control and autonomy because of their experiences. Art empowers children to define their past stories and become creators of their future narratives. It allows them to explore their creativity, process emotions, develop self-efficacy, and build necessary skills, such as problem-solving, creative thinking, and adaptability.

There are no limits to art’s versatility! Whether it’s painting, sculpting, photography, or movement—regardless of whether it’s being used for coping or relaxation—the healing potential of art is powerful and transformative for the whole being—body, mind, and soul.

Free Arts utilizes weekly mentors, teaching artists, and individual, group, or corporate volunteers to work and co-create art with participants and to provide program support. Volunteers are what make our programs possible. 

The best part? Anyone can volunteer! Those interested can visit Free Art’s volunteer page to learn more and sign up for a volunteer orientation class.

1International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. https://www.isst-d.org/public-resources-home/fact-sheet-iii-trauma-related-dissociation-an-introduction/

Author

  • Jenna Christie-Tabron

    Jenna Christie-Tabron is the Free Arts Clinical Director and mental health clinician who has dedicated her career to helping children and adolescents achieve their highest potential. She has worked in school, psychiatric, and judicial settings throughout the United States and The Bahamas. At Free Arts, she works to help the organization maintain a trauma-informed framework for their art-based programs that are designed to build resilience in children, teens, and young adults who experienced trauma.

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