Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Holistic Healing
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Many people who survive traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping, but over time and with treatment get better. PTSD, however, is characterized by symptoms—flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event—that persist, get progressively worse, and interfere with a person’s ability to function daily causing problems in social or work situations and in personal relationships.
Trauma, psychological or physical, is processed by the brain along the same neurological pathways. In other words, when we suffer severe psychological trauma we feel it the same way we would if we had been injured physically. Those that suffer from PTSD literally experience the same psychological and physical feelings they did during their experience.
The most common forms of treatment for PTSD are cognitive-behavioral therapy and medicines known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors). However, studies find that cognitive-behavioral therapy is only effective in half of patients suffering from PTSD and there are a whole host of adverse side effects associated with SSRIs. 
Neuro-imaging of the brain during traumatic recall shows that the left frontal lobe of brain shuts down. This is the center for speech, which explains why so many individuals have difficulty verbalizing their traumatic experiences in therapy sessions. Interestingly, while the left frontal lobe shuts down, the brain’s right hemisphere lights up. This is the area of the brain that deals with spatial reasoning, or in other words the part of the brain we access when we are working with our hands to create something. These findings have raised an interest in holistic healing, which considers the whole person—body, mind, spirit, and emotions—and its application to PTSD.
What Role Do Museums Play As Places of Healing
Museums are traditionally contemplative spaces. Special exhibitions that highlight military efforts, success, and culture provide a chance for veterans to reflect and process their experiences. Private viewing hours for military members and their families during an exhibition encourage healing by
connecting them to other people with similar experiences and familiarity of certain places. This kind of community building reminds those who are suffering with wounds seen and unseen that they are not alone.
Fig.1 Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served. Honolulu Museum of Art
Fig.2 Tim Hetherington. Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served. Honolulu Museum of Art
In addition to this traditional “see art” component of museums, there is an increasing interest in providing programming to address the unique needs of the community. For example, Honolulu has a high population of military members and the Honolulu Museum of Art frequently has exhibitions and programs that include the needs of the local demographic. “Make art” sessions for veterans in treatment for PTSD help focus intrusive thoughts and slow their minds down to a relaxed state. Studies are also finding that the process of creating increases a person’s sense of control over the memories of a traumatic event. Patients with PTSD use art as a filter between themselves and their memories which allows them to safely resolve the emotional issues surrounding those experiences. Art, as a vehicle for communication, allows for an intimate sharing of difficult –even brutal—experiences that rebuilds bridges back to peers and family.
Fig. 3-6 Art Therapy for Veterans
Museums have a unique opportunity to serve an audience in need of holistic healing. The American Alliance of Museums perhaps said it best, “Museums have demonstrated their public value as educational providers, community anchors, and stewards of our national heritage. As society has changed, so has the work of our museums.”  Offering a safe space to process experiences through observation and creation is the new work of the museum.
 Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.
 Cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: a review. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3083990/
Antidepressants and SSRIs http://www.drugwatch.com/ssri/
 The Magic of the Arts. http://arts.gov/NEARTS/2012v2-soul-america/magic-arts
 Museums on Call: How Museums are Addressing Health Issues. http://www.aam-us.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/museums-on-call.pdf?sfvrsn=8