Why Making Art Supports Trauma Healing & Could Save Your Life

Lissa Rankin, MD
7 min readMar 4, 2024

I want to talk to you all about something I rarely talk about these days- ART. I want to talk about it because I used to teach encaustic art classes while also practicing medicine. But I quit teaching art after I left the hospital and started a full-time writing and teaching career. The only art classes I taught once I left the hospital were with Shiloh Sophia, the founder of Intentional Creativity.

And now Shiloh and I are collaborating alongside our partners in a new class INSPIRED: A Trauma-Inspired Approach To Self-Healing. We’ll be painting and practicing Intentional Creativity, in addition to teaching you all we can about how to use every available tool in our healing toolboxes to help you become a “health outlier,” one of those Olympians of healing who go for the gold when it comes to their health. We start our journey March 1!

REGISTER FOR INSPIRED HERE

Some of you might not know, but I used to be a prolific artist showing my art in ten galleries around the world. At the time, I was also a practicing OB/GYN physician on call every fourth night and working 72-hour shifts on weekends without any sleep. I loved delivering babies, but my hospital work depleted me. Back then, I always said that medicine was my hemorrhage, while art was my transfusion.

On days I wasn’t on call, I’d get home from work at 6 and paint or make a sculpture with encaustic — which is molten pigmented beeswax. I wrote a very comprehensive manual, basically a workshop in a book, in my first book Encaustic Art , for which I interviewed 60 encaustic artists to learn their tricks of the trade, on top of the painting techniques I was using myself and teaching in encaustic painting workshops in Carmel.

I’d turn on my music and jam out while painting until midnight or so. I was obsessive about it. If I didn’t paint, my mental health significantly declined. It’s like I was bleeding out at work every day, and if I didn’t tank myself back up with music and art-making, I felt like I would have died. I’m not exaggerating. That’s how desperate my need for art-making became.

I was running as fast as I could away from the pain of my inner world- not only from the trauma of becoming a doctor and practicing medicine with moral injury but also from the pain of my unresolved childhood trauma. Making my art was a very successful trauma-supportive, nervous system-regulating practice. It could take me out of fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn stress responses and return me to a ventral vagal parasympathetic relaxation response — STAT.

But trauma is funny that way. Ultimately, using art as a transfusion (and a bypass for my trauma) wasn’t enough. The hemorrhage was ramping up when, on top of my moral injury medical trauma, and childhood wounds, my father got diagnosed with a lethal brain tumor from metastatic melanoma, my 31 year old brother wound up in the ICU in acute liver failure for a common antibiotic he was taking for a sinus infection, my dog died, and my daughter was born by C-section- all within two weeks. On top of all that, I developed many medical problems and became suicidal when I was pregnant — and it got worse after my father died right on schedule, three months after his diagnosis.

As much as art kept me alive for two decades of medical training and practice, no amount of art-making could counteract the moral injury in my work as a doctor. No amount of art could distract me from my childhood wounds. My nervous system got completely hijacked when my Perfect Storm blew over me and took any remaining inner peace with it.

One day, a little voice in my head whispered, in the kindest, most loving voice, “Sweetheart, you’re going to have to quit your job.” The voice wasn’t suggesting I stop painting and showing my art in galleries or making commissions for the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton’s of the world. I knew right away that it meant I had to quit practicing medicine. I had hit a threshold. I could no longer be complicit with a corrupt system that gave lip service to patient wellbeing but was ultimately at the mercy of the financial bottom line. ( Read more about moral injury in the hospital in this essay I co-wrote with my mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD. )

It took me two years after hearing that voice to figure out how to follow its advice, given that my baby’s father was unemployed, I had to pay $150,000 malpractice tail if I wanted to quit, and the art market had just dried up almost overnight because it was 2008- and the housing and hotel boom came to a crashing halt.

But in 2007, I left the hospital and never went back.

And you know what? The weirdest thing happened. I no longer to make art in order to survive. I didn’t feel like I would literally die if I missed a day in the encaustic studio.

I still made art. I still make art now. I’m actually making an art collaboration today with my 18 year old daughter. I still love art and believe it’s a valuable trauma-supportive practice that can transfuse you when life and trauma are hemorrhaging your life force.

But dealing with the root cause of my current, acute trauma diminished the obsessive need for it- like someone who signs up for back-to-back silent meditation retreats then no longer needs to meditate all day once they divorce their narcissistic spouse and remove the daily nervous system-dysregulating abuse.

In Mind Over Medicine, Sacred Medicine, and the 6 Steps To Radical Self Healing online course I teach, I highlight this point: Transfusions help, but unless you figure out what’s draining your life force- and stop the hemorrhage at its root- you’ll just need more and more transfusions of life force.

That’s why I was so excited to come upon Shiloh Sophia and her Intentional Creativity method of art-making- because it combines the uplifting transfusion of art-making with the embodied process of dealing with acute and past trauma. I was not making art that way when I was a doctor. I was running away from my pain, not taking it to the canvas. My pain was chasing me, and I ran until I collapsed. And when I finally took away the main source of the pain, art became a fun, joyful creative experience and a healthy way of dealing with my trauma, without the obsessive, addictive drive to paint.

That’s why I’m joining forces with Intentional Creativity founder Shiloh Sophia, my partner, Harvard Medical School professor, and co-researcher of radical remissions Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv, and Shiloh’s culinary master Jonathan McCloud. We’ve co-created a 7 phase model of healing- the INSPIRED Healing Journey- that marries all of our models of healing with the CDC’s guidelines for trauma-informed care- and with Intentional Creativity. It’s a painting class in addition to an informational and experiential class. And we sincerely hope anyone who is sick, caregiving a sick person, in the health care professions, or interested in preventive health will join us. REGISTER FOR INSPIRED HERE

We talk, we teach, we give you the goods of everything we’ve discovered- but we also PAINT. We make art. We embody our process and move it from inside our bodies to out on the canvas, where we can transform our trauma into something beautiful. We transfuse ourselves with an energy transfusion, but we don’t bypass the pain that might drive us to obsession.

When we heal and make art that way, we also have a record of the INSPIRED healing journey- an artifact of the healing process- and proof that something has moved, energetically.

No artistic talent is necessary, because it’s not about the end product- it’s about the healing journey. This method can be used with any other healing modality, as a complement to conventional medicine, functional medicine, holistic medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, energy medicine, or pretty much any medicine. But Shiloh is such an amazing art teacher that there’s a good chance you’ll create something you love and want to hang on your wall, not only because it will be beautiful but because it will remind you of your INSPIRED healing journey and be a source of inspiration you created yourself, as a sort of totem.

All you need is some basic, inexpensive art supplies, some paper to keep your space neat, and an easel or something to prop up your canvas on in order to get started. So if you’re inspired by Mind Over Medicine, Sacred Medicine, or Jeff Rediger’s CURED- but you’re tired of just listening to talking heads yammer on, if you feel ready to actually experience direct healing through trauma-informed, embodied Intentional Creativity, this journey is different than any other program I’ve taught or Jeff’s taught with me.

You’ll still get plenty of education about healing and how to do it- including two original ebooks from me and Jeff. I’ve written down every single thing I can think of that I did not learn in medical school, but which I believe our students all need to know. And I’ve also helped Jeff write a compendium to his book CURED. Each chapter has a summary of the content from CURED and also journal prompts and action steps, so you can participate actively with self-help techniques, along with painting through your process.

We honestly all tried to give you everything we’ve got, like “If I die tomorrow and I want to make sure I give you everything I know about healing, trauma, mind-body medicine, and whole health- here you go.” This is all I got.

So…I hope those of you who feel called to do so can join us!

REGISTER FOR INSPIRED HERE

Lissa & the INSPIRED team

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.