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Report from the International Whole Person Approaches Work Group

A subset of the APA Interdivisional Task Force on COVID-19

Cite this
Serlin, I., & Rivera, R. M. (2021, July 15). Report from the International Whole Person Approaches Work Group.

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When COVID-19 first caused a national lockdown, a group of trauma experts from Div. 56 joined others to issue a call in April 2020 for a Task Force, the APA Interdivisional Task Force on the Pandemic, to help other mental health professionals deal with emerging instances of trauma. Spikes of depression and anxiety were already evident among those in lockdown, and many people were re-traumatized, experiencing escalations of aggression, domestic violence, and death anxiety. In addition, associated pandemics related to climate change and social injustice exacerbated these symptoms. However, therapy had to rely on Zoom for communication, forcing therapists to find innovative ways to provide service.

Some trauma therapists found that words were not enough, especially since so much trauma is in the body. A growing number of studies now demonstrate that words alone may not always be enough to help heal trauma. First, we know that trauma is in the body; “speechless terror” needs to be met with nonverbal approaches such as QiGong, tai chi, aikido, yoga, EMDR, EFT, and creative arts and body psychotherapies. Second, trauma is a crisis of mortality, meaning, and identity. It shatters our existential worldview, raising profound questions of what it means to be human. We, therefore, need existential, humanistic, and spiritual perspectives to address the meaning of suffering and of life. Third, trauma is about loss of faith. Spiritual approaches that include mindfulness, meditation, and prayer can help us find a larger perspective and transform reactive responding into active receptivity and compassion. Fourth, trauma is about “stuckness,” “numbness,” and the “inability to play,” therefore needing creative, imaginal, movement, and emotion-focused approaches to facilitate interaction, relatedness, connection, and integration. An integrative approach to trauma recognizes the multiple dimensions of traumatization: biological, psychological, social, and spiritual—The Whole Person.

The creative and somatic arts therapies are Whole Person therapies that are uniquely suited to address all these dimensions. Therapeutic outcomes from these approaches include helping heal the mind/body split from dehumanizing terror; creating means for containing, discharging, and channeling aggression; and strengthening individual and cross-cultural community resilience and connection. They can help participants face the terror of death and rekindle life force. The creative and somatic arts therapies can decrease compassion fatigue and caregiver burnout, build caregiver regeneration and resilience, and address the interconnected individual. Finally, the arts can transport us into the transpersonal realm, symbolizing traumatic losses and glimpse hopes for the future.

Members of this work group, called International Whole Person Approaches, came from a core group of therapists and researchers from the United States and abroad. Representatives of arts organizations that provided a creative and active way for people to address trauma include the International Arts + Mind Lab, Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine , the Arts Medicine program at the University of Florida, and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya in Israel. Ongoing projects from this work group include arts-based and written materials, participation in collaborative projects such as the weekly roundtables and training webinars to disseminate resources for building resilience and creativity in the face of trauma.

We would like to invite anyone who has an interest in the use of the arts for healing to contact us with your ideas:

In addition, you can browse the excellent resources we have already gathered at: