Date of Award

Spring 5-20-2023

Document Type


Degree Name

MA - Master of Arts


Expressive Therapies


E Kellogg, PhD


Existential stress results from persistent, uncontrollable personal circumstances or broader systemic factors. Such prolonged stressors constitute “little-t trauma” and take a toll on the body, mind, and spirit. As such, approaches for building resilience against such stressors should be integrative. Because stress implicates the nervous system, bottom-up therapies are foundational in support of building a felt sense of safety. Thereafter, top-down methods for increasing one’s subjective sense of meaning and aliveness can follow. However, traditional psychotherapy approaches to resilience—including those utilized in positive psychology—are often cognitive in nature and disregard the body and nervous system. Literature on bottom-up therapies commonly refers to the healing of acute post-traumatic stress, yet these processes are also needed for building resilience when stressors are persistent and ongoing. Methodologically, creative arts therapies (CATs) offer a bridge between the top-down and bottom-up because of the arts’ distinct capacity to address the range of kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, affective, cognitive, and symbolic levels of functioning. The arts can transform an individual’s relationship to their stressors by increasing a sense of safety, agency, increased perspective, interpersonal connection, and resilience. This paper draws from polyvagal theory to understand the nervous system-related aspects of existential stress, and reviews literature to uncover how CATs, particularly expressive arts therapy (ExAT), can elevate functioning from a subjective state of dread to aliveness.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.




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