Mitchell Kossak: Trauma, Resonance and Expressive Arts

Each of us who are engaging in arts for health, resiliency and change are true leaders in the fight against fear, terror, disillusionment and all affronts against basic human dignity. Mitchell Kossak

Welcome to the 4th segment of our in-depth interview with Mitchell Kossak, PhD, LMHC, REAT

We are bringing Mitchell to Sarasota on March 4, 2017, and he will be facilitating a full-day workshop: IMAGINE HARMONY: Image, Rhythm, Sound, and Embodied Healing

Today, Mitchell addresses the vitally important subject of healing trauma through Expressive Arts.

Mitchell Kossak / Kathleen Horne
Mitchell Kossak           Kathleen Horne

Kathleen: Mitchell, I know that many of us are looking for  ways to make change internally and externally, especially during these most difficult times. People are interested in the idea of working with trauma through the arts, and can benefit from your approach.  You speak about re-imagining a world of contentiousness and fear. I would love to hear more, and share with our readers today.

Mitchell: When used in a conscientious way, the arts have the potential to help address individual or communal traumatic moments, in a way that helps to bring deeper awareness, feeling and benevolence to unfathomable experiences.

Traumatic stress, such as long-term chronic abuse and neglect or long term environmental stress inhibits the ability to fully function, and is exacerbated when there is even more serious trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, or if someone grows up under the constant threat of harm, say in a war zone, or if someone lives through a natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or tsunami.

Kathleen: What happens in the body, in these situations?

Mitchell: The nervous system goes into hyperarousal, or an acute stress response. When there has been a traumatic event in a person’s life, the fight or flight system of the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing a signal from the brain to the hormonal system, releasing cortisol that just won’t shut off. I have come to understand this reciprocal resonant response from years of witnessing these disconnected states as an expressive arts therapist and also from years of training as a body-centered psychotherapist.

Kathleen: As an expressive arts therapist, how do you address that?

Mitchell: The first thing I want to do is to begin to engage the breath. We need to engage the body’s relaxation response through the parasympathetic nervous system by first slowing way down and by getting the person more in touch with their bodily responses.  By beginning with the breath, there is a possibility of reengaging the inner resiliency available for reestablishing a more regulated and healthy rhythmic flow. I often start with grounding techniques similar to what is taught in Yoga and other martial arts as a way of restoring physical integration. [ You can read about specific example in my book Attunement in Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward an Understanding of Embodied Empathy].

Kathleen: Can you explain what resonance theory is and how this applies?

Mitchell at EAFI (Sarasota)

Mitchell:  Yes. In the theoretical framework of resonance theory, the tendency of one object to force another object into vibrational motion is referred to as a forced resonance. You might remember from your physics lessons that if a tuning fork is struck, another tuning fork within proximity will begin to vibrate. This is the phenomenon of forced resonance. And in this context a larger frequency will always overtake a weaker frequency. Our bodies are natural resonators and begin to vibrate with the sounds, images, environments, and emotions around them. In the case of catastrophic traumatic events (as a resonant experience) the vibrations or energies in the form of sounds, images, and internal stories create a resonance and begin to vibrate with the nervous system affecting how we act and react. In extreme traumatic situations the internal body based neurobiology shifts to elicit signals that the environment and everything in it is not safe as the resonant field created in the traumatic event will continue to vibrate in the form of internal images, sensations and sounds.

Kathleen: Can you give an example?

Mitchell: We see this in returning veterans of war who are acting and reacting as if they are still in the field of battle. Their minds might tell them they are back home but their nervous system is still vibrating with the images and sounds of what they experienced on the field of battle. More and more research is emerging that shows the power of the arts having a positive effect in changing the frequency or resonance in the neurobiology of the traumatic event whether that is in drawings and paintings or in drumming or singing circles or in Yoga or movement experiences, or dramatic enactments, or in using creative writing to change the resonant field.

Kathleen: So, through engagement in the expressive arts, we can change the resonant field of trauma to one of hope?

Mitchell: The application of creative and expressive arts is being used in trauma treatment and what is being shown again and again is that the arts have the capacity to bring about changes in outlook, moods, attitudes and emotions, similar to what happens to the mind-body connection in meditation. The arts can help to facilitate change because when an individual or group engages in artistic experiences they enter into a state of flow and present-moment awareness. When this flow state occurs, the nervous system shifts from a sympathetic response or a resonant state of alarm (fight/flight) to a parasympathetic response or one of embodied safety. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the body begins to form a new resonant response and can learn (or re-learn) once again how to choose between alert/alarm and calm and safe. In a trauma state, only the state of alarm is present. Vibrational realities of hope or fear can also take the form of what we hear or see, and the stronger vibration will always dominate. So focusing on practices and experiences that elicit hope, courage, faith can begin to create the stronger resonance.

Kathleen: This is powerful, and hopeful. The traumatic event causes internal vibrations, sensations and images of fear, alarm, and danger, and, in the work with expressive arts (images, sounds, vibrations, rhythms) we are creating the possibility of restoring a dominant resonant field of calm and hope.

Mitchell: Yes. Another outcome of the flow state through engagement in the arts is that it allows individuals to return to a natural state of play, which allows for a natural state of self-regulation to occur where the individual can learn new ways of creatively addressing how they experience their world. The arts are truly transformational and each of us who are engaging in arts for health, resiliency and change are true leaders in the fight against fear, terror, disillusionment and all affronts against basic human dignity.

There are many expressive arts therapists working with survivors of environmental, communal or personal trauma that have made great strides in addressing this very difficult issue and if you want to read some of these stories addressing current global concerns you can read the special issue of the Journal of Applied Arts (Fall 2016) which I oversaw as the chief editor of this issue.


Kathleen: Thank you, Mitchell. Can you say something about how this relates to your upcoming workshop in Sarasota?

Mitchell: More work needs to be done in understanding how the arts used expressively and conscientiously can affect the contentious and difficult times we are living in. That is why I titled this upcoming workshop Imagine Harmony, because I believe that we need to find ways to re-imagine the world we live in so that we can hopefully change the dominant resonance of fear, terror, insecurity, hopelessness and pervasive anxiety. By engaging in arts practice we can begin to re-tune our own imagery and internal rhythms which in turn will begin to create a new resonance in ourselves and in our communities.

Kathleen: Again, many thanks, Mitchell for sharing your important work with us. As an expressive arts therapist and practitioner, I find a potent seed of hope in the midst of these challenging and divisive times.

We are so looking forward to your return to Sarasota on March 4. In our next segment of this blog series, we will talk about some of your extensive work internationally! 

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