Though a previously unknown and highly communicable disease is a clear and present threat, the other side of a pandemic situation can result in an equally destructive and potentially longer lasting health issue: Mental illness. We’re not talking all-out crazy here, but low levels of stress over an extended period of time take a health toll no less serious.
More than ever, mental health and brain health are becoming top wellness issues.
Many who never struggled with these issues before are experiencing depression, anxiety, frustration, irritability and even anger in their lives due to ongoing, disruptive and often frightening circumstances they find themselves in.
For some, the symptoms may be more subtle, such as frustration, lack of focus and general restlessness, but all generally stemming from a fear of the unknown. If you or someone you know is having emotional difficulty, or behavioral changes in these times of stress, there is a truly remarkable activity that can help.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not an artist. That is not the point of nor a requirement for art therapy; what makes art therapy effective is the profound psychological and emotional impact that creating a piece of art can produce.
Happily, art therapy also does not need to take place in a paint studio or psychologists office (though it can). You can create the conditions necessary to allow and encourage creative activity anyplace, anywhere and at virtually no cost. That could mean something as simple as keeping a pack of colored markers or crayons within arm’s reach of your workspace.
Art Therapy defined
What is art therapy? One dictionary definition describes it as “A form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through painting, drawing, or modeling, used as a remedial activity or an aid to diagnosis.” Another source states that art therapy is “A distinct discipline that incorporates creative methods of expression through visual art media. However you choose to describe it, art therapy is good for everyone, whether children or adults, young or old.
But is it for me?
Absolutely! By reflecting on the art you create, emotional and/or psychological truths can surface, helping you identify the core issues and allow you to begin the healing process. Many who have undergone art therapy have noticed an increased ability to relax, to focus, express anger in a positive way and even to process grief.
Drawing, painting, sculpting, collaging, and other types of crafts are typical art therapy techniques to facilitate greater understanding, inner harmony and self-awareness. For children, art therapy often helps them to process their emotions and develop the skill of self-soothing, which is the ability to regain calm after a stressful experience. For older adults, self-expression and the social element of creating art with others are among the many positive mental health impacts of art therapy.
How does it help me?
Hidden in your artwork are clues to your mental state that professional art therapists use to identify underlying fears, emotional wounds and suppressed desires. These can take the form of symbols, representations and metaphors expressed in the resulting creation. However, not everyone feels the need or can afford professional help. The good news is that you can readily reap the benefits of art therapy all on your own, such as:
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Increased focus
- Improved self-esteem and self-worth
- Enhanced problem-solving skills
- Improved communication skills
- Improved emotional intelligence and processing
- Increased ability to cope with physical illness
- Ability to face past traumas and emotional triggers
- Increased ability to self-soothe
With that in mind, here are some simple and amazingly effective activities you can try when you’re feeling either general or specific emotions.
When you’re angry - draw lines.
Straight, diagonal, crooked, squiggly, bold or thin, just draw them. Draw many of them. Use color, or not. Your choice or non-choice of color can be an indicator of your state of mind and level of emotion and help release it.
Are you REALLY angry, to the point of RAGE? Tear a piece of paper or card; tear it many times until it is in multiple pieces. The very act of breaking down a larger item into small pieces is symbolic of reducing a problem into manageable sections, thereby helping you cope. Take it a step farther and glue the torn pieces into a collage, rearranging them unlike their original structure.
When you can’t make a decision
- draw circles and waves.
When you’re bored
- draw or paint in multiple colors. Again, your choice of color can be both revealing and healing.
When you’re sad
- draw a rainbow.
When you’re restless
- draw a landscape.
When you feel unfocused
- draw bulls-eyes, grid patterns or targets.
When you don’t know what you want
- make a collage. This could be similar to a vision board, but allow yourself to compose it with images you are drawn to, rather than looking for specific items. It’s about what’s in the subconscious, not our frontal cortex list-building goal-oriented limitations.
When you’re worried
- make origami. It doesn't have to be a dragon or a swan; remember making those paper "fortune tellers"? Make one with a special texture or color of paper.
When you feel confused
- draw a mandala. A mandala is a circular design often composed of many internal sections.
If you’re feeling nostalgic
- draw a maze
When you’re not sure how to describe or understand what you’re feeling
- draw yourself. Self-portraits have been a mainstay of artists throughout the centuries. Do you wonder why?
When you’re stuck, in a rut, or unsure how to move ahead
- draw spirals.
When you feel desperation creeping in
- draw roads. Roads suggest direction, pathways, and a destination. They are not always straight, but they lead somewhere. Let your drawn roads lead you.
If you feel your mind full of disorganized thoughts
- draw cells or squares. There’s a reason that complex data is often shown in a table format. What makes up a table? Squares!
It may seem like you have no time to spend on anything extra when your mind is racing and you’re stressed out about your situation or the world around you. You think you can’t fit in one more thing when you are already overwhelmed by tasks you need to accomplish that seem to close in on you and make you feel physically paralyzed. But take the time. Your brain deserves it.
Just a few minutes. Experiment. Release your mind of all its processing for a moment, and allow yourself to absorb the benefits of simple strategies like these art therapy techniques, and remember, you’re not trying to create a beautiful piece of art. You are taking a moment to heal; to express your inner struggles, emotions and subconscious thoughts. Be creative, and be well!