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FGCU graduating senior Sarah Neat uses art therapy to process PTSD

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Ever since the Norwegian comedy duo of Vegard and Bard Ylvisaker released The Fox on YouTube, everyone from Jimmy Fallon to BuzzFeed has been asking "What does the fox say?" Everyone except Florida Gulf Coast University graduating senior Sarah Neat. That's because Sarah knows that what the fox says is "I'm a survivor."

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"I chose the fox to symbolize my struggles with PTSD because they are cunning, and just as the fox uses its guile and instincts to survive, people with PTSD use instinct to find ways to cope, to get by, to survive," explains Sarah, who settled on the fox for her senior project exhibition long before Ylvis' September 3 release of The Fox on YouTube.

Her senior project exhibition, Damaged, contains 33 charcoal and graphite caricatures that autobiographically depict Sarah's progression through PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Originally diagnosed as shell shock or battle fatigue in soldiers, anyone who experiences or witnesses events such as abuse, assault, rape, a car accident or natural disaster, a prison stay, terrorism or war can develop the disorder. In Sarah's case, it was domestic abuse that she suffered as a child, although the formal diagnosis did not occur until several years later.

"I experienced symptoms during childhood, but my family just thought I had problems with self-control. They thought it was a 'me' thing," Sarah recounts. "But the symptoms started affecting my daily life. I'd have anxiety attacks, and lash out at people. I couldn't ride in the car with someone without shrieking at a car coming at us because I thought it was going to hit us or that the other driver was going to mess up. My family would just say, 'Stop that. Control yourself.' But I couldn't. Not without help."

Doctors do not know why traumatic events cause PTSD in some people but not in others. Genes, emotional make-up, and family setting may all play roles. But regardless of the trigger or its bio-social etiology, the body's response to stress is changed as a result of PTSD. Instead of stress hormones and chemicals returning to normal levels, in a person with PTSD the body keeps releasing stress hormones and chemicals, causing chronic, heightened anxiety.

"The drawings are positioned in a wave because the disorder's progression isn't linear," Sarah remarks with a sweep of her hand that takes in the three horseshoe-configured walls that comprise her exhibition space in the FGCU Art Gallery. "There is a laundry list of symptoms, but you will only experience and exhibit some of them depending upon what you witnessed or experienced. And they cover the spectrum from violence, anger and acting out to withdrawal and self-mutilation. Every time something happens that reminds you of the situation, like flashbacks or nightmares, it sends you into fight, flight or freeze mode."

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, PTSD symptoms are typically grouped into three main categories:

  • Reliving: People with PTSD repeatedly relive the ordeal through thoughts and memories of the trauma that may include flashbacks, hallucinations, and nightmares. They also may feel great distress when things like the anniversary date of the event remind them of the trauma.
  • Avoiding: Many people suffering with PTSD engage in avoidance behavior, eschewing people, places, thoughts and situations that remind them of the trauma. Regrettably, this often leads to feelings of detachment and isolation from family and friends, as well as a loss of interest in activities that the person once enjoyed.
  • Hyperarousal: This group of problematic symptoms includes irritability, outbursts of anger, loss of focus or inability to concentrate, hypervigilance and being jumpy or easily startled. These symptoms can be exacerbated by insomnia, feelings of isolation and disassociation, increased blood pressure and heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension and even nausea.

"With PTSD, it's a matter of learning to live with it, of developing coping strategies such as meditation, stress relief and finding other outlets," Sarah reports. "My counsellor taught me to create habits that would calm down the fight, flight or freeze mode."

But one mechanism her counsellor didn't impart was using art to work through her symptoms in order to come to terms with the disorder.

"The drawings are pretty gruesome, but very therapeutic," Neat says with a pained sigh. "When I was putting them up, I said to myself, 'I went through all this and now I'm on the other side.'"

And that's the beauty of Damaged. It's not about PTSD. Instead, it depicts the artist's journey to the other side of the divide between imbalance and full functionality. As art therapists like Dr. Judith A. Rubin have long espoused, the arts have transformative powers. When coupled with counselling and therapy, creative work can liberate people from the shackles of many psycho-social maladies.

Who knows, now that she's placed her PTSD behind her, perhaps Sarah Neat will use her own cunning, life lessons and art degree to teach others strategies that will help them survive.

That's what the fox says in Sarah Neat's case.

You can meet Sarah Neat and take in Damaged on Thursday, December 5. The Fall 2013 Senior Projects Exhibition opens at 6:00-8:00 p.m. in the Art Gallery at Florida Gulf Coast University, with introductions and oral presentations by the graduating seniors beginning at 7:00 p.m.

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