Trauma, clay and art therapy


Perspectives is our regular series dedicated to sharing the knowledge and viewpoints of those with a unique or specialist understanding of art therapy.

In this issue, Julia interviews Cornelia Elbrecht, AThR, SEP. Cornelia is a registered art therapist and supervisor with ANZACATA and a somatic experiencing practitioner. She is the founder and director of the Institute for Sensorimotor Art Therapy in Apollo Bay, Victoria, Australia.

Could you share your journey of how you became interested in the correlation between trauma and art?

Cornelia: I was born in post-war Germany. Trauma was the norm; it was everywhere. I was surrounded by inexplicable violence, unpredictability, and an unspoken code of silence. Psychotherapy was considered as utterly shameful. The term post traumatic stress disorder only became mainstream with the Vietnam war, almost 30 years later.

The suffering during my childhood fuelled a lifelong search for healing. As a 20-year-old in the 1970s, I was a troubled, dissociated young woman who had taken too much LSD. In the Black Forest, I was fortunate to find the Institute for Initiatic Therapy that pioneered a combination of Jungian depth psychology, meditation, bodywork, martial arts, yoga and the arts as a holistic therapy. I stayed there for 18 years, graduating from patient to student to co-worker over time.

When I immigrated to Australia, I trained with Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk and Babette Rothschild. I knew how to work with the body, but I had insufficient cognitive understanding to explain the process. The recent insights into the neurobiology of trauma finally gave me a language to intentionally apply a body-focused, trauma-informed approach to art therapy. This is when I founded the Institute for Sensorimotor Art Therapy to teach Guided Drawing and Clay Field Therapy.


You talk about how, instead of children using creation and destruction to make sense of their world, everything is screen-based. How do you think this lack of touch impact children’s development?

Cornelia: Touch is the most undervalued one of the five senses. It is so implicit we don’t think much about it, yet babies who aren’t touched and held die. I think we’re coming to a point where we will appreciate touch a lot more.

When I was a child, you played outside and came in for meals. There were not a lot of toys, just leaves, grass, water, dirt, and flowers. These days I meet kindergarten teachers who ask me how to deal with toddlers who don’t know how to pick up a building block, because their hands-brain connection doesn’t recognise a 3D object; they only know the swipe.

I found for most children clay works best. I teach Clay Field Therapy. Children sit in front of a flat box filled with about 10 kilos of clay; they need to engage their body to move it. Those with learning and behavioural difficulties can struggle with image and word-based therapies, even symbols, because their sensorimotor foundation is too dysregulated.

In Clay Field Therapy we work with the haptic perception of the hands. The focus is not on creating an object, but to explore the touch relationship with the material. All contact triggers a feedback loop. You reach out with a motor impulse, touch something and receive sensory feedback from it. Such feedback starts in the womb and teaches the foetus nervous system regulation. Babies learn love and safety through being touched by their caregivers. Toddlers explore the world through touching objects and moving them.

In Clay Field, you can only create something if you destroy the smooth surface of the material. Every mark will leave a trace. In each mark children will encounter themselves. Those who have experienced rupture without repair will struggle to trust this process of destruction and creation. However, if this process of creative destruction is compromised so is the ability to self-realise.

Trauma often involves touch, be this sexual and physical abuse or medical interventions and accidents. When children have experienced trauma, I find they respond with what Dan Siegel calls ‘acting in’ or ‘acting out’. Those in sensory overload sit at the Clay Field and do not dare to move the clay because they’re afraid that something will happen if they touch it. They are ‘acting in’ and I often wait for the moment when they realise that nothing happens, that it is safe to touch the material in this setting – but this can take time. Or you have the children who are acting out. These children are doing-doing-doing, but they receive no sensory feedback from their actions. I’ve seen such kids from households with domestic violence; they associate feeling with getting hurt, so they shut down the sensory feedback loop.

Can one traumatic narrative be overlaid with a new sensory narrative experience?

Cornelia: Yes, this is exactly what drives the process forward. Take for example someone who has survived on porridge all her life, but then you give this child the taste of a raspberry. The sweetness explodes in her mouth, and it tastes so much better than porridge. Of course, she wants more. When we work with haptic perception, the process is the same. It feels so much better to fully connect with the material, to get handfuls of it, to stand up and shape something just as I want it to be, for it to become something I can be proud of.

Children will need time to realise they are safe to connect, that there will be no repercussions, that they will not be humiliated for coming out of their shell. But once they have discovered this safety, their dissociated developmental needs will come back online.

Dissociation is a survival response; and we shut down the unbearable. If the most stressful part is witnessing my dad beating my mum, I dissociate the sensory feeling part and stay with ‘the doing’ part. For many children who experience sexual abuse at home, the safest response is to fly under the radar. They hang back and don’t express themselves through motor impulses, but at the same time, they’re hyper-vigilant.

When we work with these children we do not work with the story. Many don’t have a story or, if they do, perhaps won’t talk about it. At the same time, they might have behavioural or learning difficulties because their whole sensorimotor base is disorganised. By helping these children to come back into safe contact, we support them in discovering that it is safe to move and to express themselves. It is really uplifting to witness when that happens.

How has your personal journey shaped your work?

Cornelia: I know what trauma feels like, and I believe the wounded healer is an important archetype. I often tell students that if you didn’t have a wound, you probably would not be interested in becoming a therapist. It brings tremendous growth.

I’ve been doing this work for almost 50 years. For a long time, it was ‘she does draw with eyes closed and both hands’, ‘why so much focus on the body?’. It was all considered a bit weird and out of the box, but suddenly, the time was right.

Mostly I was driven by an inner need. I’d tried many other therapies, and only those where the body was truly involved worked for me. There, embodied, were all the memories.

You emphasise not getting caught up in trauma, retelling and reliving. What guidance might you give to art therapists?

Cornelia: Based on Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing work, we do not engage with the trauma story, but we search to find what he calls the counter vortex. A resource that helps you to get through. Before we engage in any trauma exploration, I make sure a client can implicitly access this resource as a felt sense. Think of the raspberry!

When clients are resourced, when they realise they are safe now, they will find the courage to actively respond to something that happened. They will not get retraumatized by the recall, but they can pace themselves, they can adjust their response to the overwhelming event, until they are gradually able to resolve the fear, so they are no longer held hostage by their past experiences.

Book onto Cornelia’s course 

If you would like to learn from Cornelia, you can book onto our course with her, ‘Haptic perception in art therapy: using clay for implicit repair of developmental deficits‘, running in March 2024.

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