What is imagination? What is play? What is Creativity? And why are they an important part of the healing process?

Imagination is defined as the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses or never before perceived in reality. It is also known as creative ability, the ability to confront and deal with a problem, and is associated with resourcefulness.

The key ingredient of imagination is the capacity for mental flexibility that allows one to fantasise and create novel perceptions and thoughts and to envision new visions and outcomes – all of which are at the core of Expressive Therapies. It is particularly significant for the process of meaning making because the ability to imagine something better than what has transpired is a necessary component of reparation. Imagination is essential to making new meaning, post-trauma. The effectiveness of Expressive Therapies is often predicted on the individual’s capacity for imagination.

Imagination is now finding its place as an essential capacity not only for cognitive abilities, but also for social-emotional skills such as empathy, curiosity, sense of purpose, confidence, envisioning the future and meaning making.

When we talk about trauma integration within expressive therapies, we ultimately are referring to the possibility of imagining new stories through expressive experiences in order to become whole again. This goes beyond simply making meaning; it is the process of imagining a new self-concept of who we are as individuals and within our relationships and environments. Imagination can be used to create new narratives, or novel and reparative stories, thus supporting post traumatic growth and positive change in clients.

Seeing clients manifest a new way of being, through imagination is gratifying for any therapist. It can feel deeply satisfying when a client shows the first spark of imagination and creates reparative stories during a session. Expressive Therapies play a role in pivotal moments of change, in the reparative experience of expressing one’s story, and ultimately in how imagination reframes tragedy into hope and healing.

Let’s turn our attention now to Play. What is play? What are the key elements that distinguish play from other activities? Firstly, play mimics or approximates a common or important purposeful behaviour; second, play is voluntary, is pleasurable and has no immediate survival role or obvious ‘purpose’; and finally, play takes place in a non-threatening, low-duress context. Play may assist learning and development and can be undertaken by individuals or groups spontaneously or as part of a planned activity.

It is no surprise that the core elements of play echo some of the essential ingredients of successful therapeutic interactions with traumatized clients – perceived control, reward and manageable stress. Bringing play into therapeutic work, therefore, not only makes sense; it is often an essential element for therapeutic progress.

Play is an effective therapeutic agent when it provides a developmentally appropriate means to regulate, communicate, practice and master. When client’s use play in therapy, studies show improved prosocial behaviour and decreased symptomatic behaviour.

What then is creativity? Creativity is defined as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, and the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations. It involves originality, progressiveness, or imagination.

Creativity occurs when self-expression is fully formed and achieves a novel and aesthetic value. Whilst many use the term ‘creativity’ to describe Expressive Therapy, it is actually the use of imagination that informs theory and practice. In contrast to creativity, imagination is really at the centre of most expressive therapy sessions.

One of the core goals of Expressive Therapies is to restore individuals’ capacity for creativity and imagination because they are believed to be essential to mental health and physical well-being. Traditional and contemporary psychotherapists alike underscore the idea that creativity and imagination promote a necessary sense of safety that sets the stage for engagement in treatment, positive shifts in thoughts and feelings, and ultimately discovery of novel ways to overcome life’s challenges. Leaders in the field of traumatology also echo the importance of imagination and creativity in trauma work.

How do imagination, play and creativity help heal attachment wounds and develop healthy and secure attachment?

Much of our increased knowledge about attachment comes from greater understanding of neurodevelopment, the brain’s responses to trauma and how adverse events can result in disrupted, insecure or disorganised attachment. In particular, research and clinical findings pinpoint the central role of the right hemisphere of the brain in healthy attachment.

Treating attachment problems, involves specific, experientially based approaches that stimulate right brain activity and are important in re-establishing secure and positive attachment experiences. In particular, research shows that therapies that give people ways to express their inner worlds through nonverbal communication are key.

The use of imagination, play and creativity through the multi-modal and integrative aspect of Expressive Therapies capitalise on ‘right-brain-to-right-brain’ connections between the client and therapist. When early attachment experiences are disrupted by trauma, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, loss, separation from caregivers, or other factors, it becomes essential to use interventions that use forms of expression and processing to initiate and stimulate reparative processes in a brain-focused way. These experiential, sensory approaches that involve imagination, play and creativity are corrective experiences for the client even when the critical periods in early development are compromised.