A teenager’s dream.

In the heart of a sprawling township in Cape Town, where dreams often clashed with the stark realities of life, lived a 16-year-old girl named Maya. Raised in humble surroundings, Maya faced the daily struggle of navigating adolescence in the face of economic and social challenges. The weight of societal expectations pressed heavily on her young shoulders, manifesting as self-esteem issues and anxiety that seemed to grow with each passing day.

Maya was one of thirty girls who attended our 2023 winter workshop at her school – the narrative arts therapy course. I recognised the unspoken battles on many of the girls faces, aware of how challenging their lives are. Maya was one of a small group of five girls who came up to me and said that they are not artists, but could they still attend? I assured her that no art experience was needed, explaining that every story, irrespective of how you express it, held value.

Maya's first creation was a collage – a mosaic of images representing the fragments of her identity. Among the torn magazine pages, she found elements that resonated with her story, capturing both the abuse and the essence of resilience that defined her upbringing. Maya began to recognize the power of her story through this creative process.

As the narrative arts therapy course unfolded, I introduced journaling exercises, encouraging Maya and her friends to give voice to their collage images, thoughts, and emotions. The pages of their journals became mirrors reflecting the challenges of growing up in a world that often overlooked children and those with limited means.

Maya crafted a symbolic representation of herself—a collaged paper doll adorned with images that celebrated her uniqueness. The act of creating this visual narrative became a powerful tool for cultivating self-esteem. Each image was a declaration of Maya's worthiness, irrespective of societal standards.

I recognized the anxiety that lingered beneath Maya and her friends’ surface. To address this, they delved into mindfulness exercises and incorporated breathing techniques during the sessions.

As the two-week course progressed, Maya's creations evolved. Her final visual and written narrative told a story of a girl who, despite social and economic challenges, dared to dream and found strength in her unique narrative. Our make-shift studio at her school became a safe space where Maya and her friends not only expressed themselves, but also shared their intimate stories with each other, feeling less alone, and more confidant.

In the final session, Maya stood before her exhibit of her creations and shared it with her friends, who did the same. This became a visual testimony of her journey through narrative arts therapy. That all their stories shared similar themes of loss and violence in their township, became a source of collective strength to them.

Stepping away from Maya and her friends’ experience, I want to add that science sheds further light on the profound impact of narrative arts therapy on young minds. Engaging in artistic endeavours, such as writing and collage-making, activates various regions of the brain associated with creativity, self-expression, and emotional processing.

When individuals like Maya immerse themselves in the process of selecting and arranging images for a collage, their brains experience heightened activity in the visual cortex, where images are processed. This not only stimulates creativity but also facilitates the externalization of complex emotions that might be challenging to articulate verbally.

Moreover, the act of storytelling, a fundamental element of narrative arts therapy, engages areas of the brain responsible for language processing and comprehension. As Maya expressed her narrative through the collage, neural pathways associated with self-reflection and personal meaning-making were activated. This dance of brain activity contributes to a deeper understanding of one's identity, nurturing self-awareness and emotional healing.

Collage creation, with its tactile and visual components, adds a sensory dimension to the therapeutic process. The tactile experience of handling materials and the visual engagement with colours and shapes stimulate sensory-motor areas of the brain, promoting a holistic and embodied expression of emotions.

Neuroscientific research also suggests that engaging in creative activities, including collage-making, can trigger the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, associated with pleasure and reward. This not only enhances the overall mood but creates positive associations with the therapeutic process.

In Maya's case, the underlying neuroscience of narrative arts therapy had a multifaceted impact on her brain. The collaborative interplay of visual and verbal expression, coupled with cognitive and sensory engagement, contributed to an experience that facilitated self-discovery and emotional self-regulation.

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