Cumulative Trauma and the Creative Experience

Childhood Adversity and the Creative Experience in Adult Professional Performing Artists, a 2018 study, published in Frontiers in Psychology by doctors Paula Thomson and Victoria Jaque, studied 234 performing artists: dancers, opera singers, actors, directors, musicians. 18% of them reported 4+ adverse childhood experiences and greater negative psychological factors.

Those with greater histories of childhood trauma not only reported heightened experiences of creativity but also more transformative value in the process.

The researchers conclude that adversity may enhance creativity as well as the value placed on it. They also note that creative experiences need to be supportive in order to be beneficial and that performance experiences laced with criticism can trigger withdrawal or stress reactions, particularly for those with greater histories of trauma.

Doctors Thomson and Jaque were featured presenters in our 2013 one-day conference, “On the Edge of Chaos: Finding Flow & Resilience through Creativity & the Arts.”

Click here to read the whole study. The abstract is reprinted below:

Childhood adversity is identified as any exposure to abuse, neglect or family dysfunction. Greater exposure to childhood adversity has been strongly identified with increased morbidity and mortality. The aim of this study was to examine differences in creative experiences, fantasy proneness, dispositional flow, exposure to adult traumatic events, and psychopathology (internalized shame, trait anxiety), amongst professional performing artists who experienced no childhood adversity, some adversity, or substantial adversity. This cross-section IRB approved study examined 234 professional performers (dancers, opera singers, actors, directors, musicians). Self-report measurements were included to examine the following psychological factors: adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), experience of creativity questionnaire, dispositional flow, trait anxiety, internalized shame, fantasy, and total adult and childhood traumatic events. The sample was divided into three groups based on ACE scores: 0 ACE (n = 93), 1–3 ACEs (n = 95), ≥4 ACEs (n = 42). The MANCOVA (with age and gender as covariates) results revealed no significant (p = 0.280) differences between all three ACE groups for the nine flow scales (optimal performance measurements). Performing artists with ≥4 ACEs had significantly stronger creative experiences (p = 0.006) related to distinct creative processing, absorption, and a transformational sense of self and the world. They were also more fantasy prone, shame-based, anxious, and experienced more cumulative past traumatic events (p < 0.001). Although the high ACE group experienced greater negative effects, they also endorsed positive creative performance experiences.