Anxiety is an uncomfortable emotion with uncomfortable physical sensations. Our chest tightens. Our breathing gets shallow. Our stomach feels like we’re on a rollercoaster with exactly one thousand drops. We feel restless. Our thoughts are fast and furious, like a game of ping pong. Maybe we’re ruminating about everything we have to do. Maybe we’re ruminating about losing our job and not being able to pay the bills. Maybe we’re ruminating about a relationship, an upcoming project, an upcoming move, a mistake we’ve made—or many, many other things. Or maybe we’re not sure what our anxiety is about, but it’s still persistent.
It’s understandable why we’d want to avoid experiencing anxiety, and pretend it doesn’t exist. But doing so only amplifies our anxiety.
Art-making can help us move through our anxious thoughts and feelings. It can help us approach anxiety in an accessible way, and better understand what we’re experiencing. It also can provide a healthy respite from the broken record of rapid-fire thoughts. In an earlier piece, we shared five art-journaling techniques to explore and process your anxiety. Below are seven more tools to try.
Importantly, don’t worry about your skill level or training when it comes to creating art. In fact, you don’t even need to love art. None of these things are “required to benefit from art journaling,” according to Hannah Wilson, LPC, ATR-BC, a licensed professional counselor and licensed board-certified art therapist in Washington, D.C.
Address your thoughts. Write down your anxious thoughts, and then paint or color over the page, 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. If you’d like to take it a step further, personify your anxiety: “If it were a person or creature, what would it look like?”
Create a calming image. This might be a place, person, pet, thing, memory, color or design that evokes positive and calming emotions, said Wilson, 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. You might draw this image, or cut out images from magazines. When you’re anxious, imagine yourself stepping inside the image, she said.
Embellish your self-talk. Write down self-talk that is helpful to you when you’re anxious, Mehlomakulu said. It’ OK that I’m anxious. This is only temporary. I can let anxiety wash over me. I’m not a failure because I’m anxious. Everyone gets anxious because we’re human, and it’s a human emotion. This is unpleasant and frustrating, but I can handle it. I can breathe through it. How can I support myself right now? How can I be kind to myself? What’s a positive action I can take to transform this worry into a solution? What am I really upset about?
“Then decorate and embellish the pages with positive art”—whatever that means or looks like to you.
Combine art with quotes. Write a mantra, intention or quote that inspires you, and create art around it, Mehlomakulu said. For instance, you might pick the word “acceptance,” and draw or find images that illustrate acceptance to you. Or you might pick a quote that serves as a reminder when you’re struggling, like this excellent quote from Dan Millman: “You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.”
Use nature as inspiration. “Combining time spent in nature with making art is a great way to enhance the stress-reducing benefits of both,” Mehlomakulu said. She suggested taking a walk or simply sitting in your backyard. Next pick a natural object that resonates with you. Then use it as part of your art. You can draw, paint, or even trace it on the page, she said.
Create a collage. This can provide a positive distraction from your anxious thoughts and sensations. You might use magazine images or words, photos, scraps of colored paper, tissue paper, feathers, leaves or anything else that resonates with you, Mehlomakulu said. You also can paint or draw over and around your collage, she said.
Use air-dry clay or Model Magic. If you prefer not to use a journal, Wilson suggested using a small amount of either kind of clay to “create a shape, object or symbol that represents something you’re grateful for, something that went well, or a personal strength that you have.”
Use the above techniques—or journal spontaneously. “You don’t have to know why you’re creating something, what it is, or what it means,” Wilson said. “Art journaling can be literal, abstract, simple or as detailed as feels good. There are infinite ways to make art and express your feelings through art—they are all correct and there is no wrong way to do this.”
Art journaling, or any kind of art-making, helps us to honor and accept our feelings and experiences, which is thereby honoring and accepting ourselves. It helps us to slow down our thoughts, so we can explore them, and listen to what we need.