Anxiety can be persistent and stubborn, especially when you try to ignore. It’s like a child who refuses to take no for an answer and simply gets louder and louder, until they’re throwing a full-blown tantrum on the floor of your local Target.
Anxiety also is an emotion we often despise. We see it as an adversary, as something that gets in our way, as something we must fight and defeat. Which means we don’t want anything to do with it, which means it remains unprocessed and misunderstood.
What can help is art-making. Art-making gives us the opportunity to explore and process our anxiety in a non-intimidating way.
Art-making helps us access parts of the brain that words cannot. “Many people find that it feels easier, safer and more comfortable to express difficult feelings through art-making rather than [writing],” said Hannah Wilson, LPC, ATR-BC, a licensed professional counselor and licensed board-certified art therapist in Washington, D.C, who offers holistic, trauma informed care that combines traditional talk therapy, art therapy and sand tray therapy and focuses on deepening the mind, body, spirit connection. That’s because stressful and traumatic experiences are stored differently in our brains, which makes it harder to fully access them and their associated feelings with writing alone, she said.
“Art-making, as opposed to verbal processing, can help to get past our egos, defenses, over-thinking and analyzing in order to access what we’re really feeling underneath as well as internal strengths and resources we may not realize are there.”
The act of art-making also can soothe us. “Being creative helps to engage our minds in a positive, fulfilling activity,” said Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT-S, ATR-BC, a board-certified art therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist supervisor, who blogs about art therapy and has a private practice treating clients with depression, anxiety, and trauma. “When you are focusing on your art and what you are creating in the moment, it provides a way to turn your mind away from anxious, stressful thoughts.”
It redirects the mind and breaks what can often “feel like an unstoppable loop” of anxious thoughts, said Becky Butler, LPC, ATR-BC, a psychotherapist and board-certified art therapist who works with clients to help meet goals, change unhealthy behaviors, discover new strengths, improve self-expression, and encourage healing.
One specific technique is art journaling, which is simply “using a journal for artistic self-expression,” Mehlomakulu said. Art journaling helps to contain our thoughts and feelings. “[M]aking art in the journal to express difficult emotions like anxiety can help someone to acknowledge and name the emotion, then release it on to the page, lessening the intensity of the feeling.” Because when we keep anxious thoughts and feelings inside ourselves, our anxiety just expands.
Plus, Mehlomakulu noted, looking at your creations in your art journal can help you gain insights into your anxiety, clarify your values, track changes and pick up on your own patterns. For instance, maybe you notice that your anxiety spikes in the summer. Maybe you notice that anger often accompanies your anxiety.
Below you’ll find five ways to use art journaling to navigate your anxiety. Remember that you don’t have to be an artist to benefit from these techniques any more than you have to be a writer to benefit from journaling. And the “quality” of your creations doesn’t matter. Focus on expressing yourself. That’s what matters, and that’s where the magic is.
Capture your anxiety. Wilson suggested using lines, colors and shapes to create an image of your anxiety. What does your anxiety look like? What does it feel like? “Don’t worry about drawing a ‘picture.’” Once you’ve completed your image, ask yourself these questions: Can I add something so the anxiety feels less intense? Would it feel good to tear up the paper and toss it? Or to shred it or burn it? How might I release it? Is there something I’d like to say to my anxiety? If so, Wilson suggested saying it aloud.
Draw mandalas. Many people feel calm, relaxed and focused when drawing mandalas, which are circular patterns that contain intricate details, according to Butler. In fact, it can be meditative. Begin by drawing a circle, and fill it with anything you like. “I like to start by drawing a tiny shape in the very center and then add lines and symbols mirroring each other horizontally and vertically. By the end, I have a full design that I can color.”
Draw a safe space. Both Butler and Mehlomakulu suggested thinking of a place that helps you to feel safe and calm. This might be a place from your past or an imaginary space. It could be anything from a cozy bedroom to a familiar hike to grandma’s kitchen to the couch cuddling with your dog, Butler said. Illustrate what you see, smell, hear, taste and feel. “Engaging the five senses taps into being mindful, which generally helps reduce anxiety.”
You also might write about what safety means for you, Mehlomakulu said. The next time you feel anxious, visualize your safe space, she said.
Create art inspired by meditation. Listen to a guided meditation or meditate on your own, Mehlomakulu said. Then create art in response to the experience. “You might use art to show the imagery or symbols that came to your mind or visually represent what your observed during mindfulness.”
Simply scribble. “Not all art journaling has to be meaningful, expressive, or symbolic,” Mehlomakulu said. Sometimes, just scribbling and doodling gives our minds a break from anxious thinking, she said. “Many people find it soothing and relaxing to create repetitive patterns on their page or to color in all the shapes created by a scribble.”
Art journaling is just one technique that can help with anxiety. If you’re interested in exploring more art-inspired strategies in a therapeutic manner, Butler suggested finding a registered art therapist at the American Art Therapy Association.
Stay tuned for a second piece with seven strategies to help you navigate your anxiety.