For artist Stephanie Medford self-care is vital. And it’s much more than manicures, massages and bubble baths. For Medford, who struggles with anxiety, self-care is getting over 8 hours of sleep each night. It’s meditating. It’s moving her body and being in nature.
It’s also art.
In fact, art is the foundation of her self-care.
“I have always had a desire to create, to express myself, to make things, and when I finally started to act on that desire and make art a priority, I started to feel like I was saying ‘yes’ to myself for the first time,” said Medford, also a writer and teacher with a mission to help people who have lost touch with their creativity find their way back to their creative selves.
“I wasn’t trying to make myself into something that I wasn’t, I was finally embracing who I was and what I wanted and giving it space in the world.”
Medford also uses art to explore her anxiety. This helps her to “feel less like a passive victim of my brain, and more like an active participant shaping what effect it will have on my life.”
Art, in general, is powerful for practicing self-care. Because it connects us to ourselves on a profound level. It helps us to listen to ourselves. It helps us pick up on subtleties and patterns. “It can show us our pain in a heartbeat; and it also can give us clues to what we are needing, and what direction to take in the present moment,” said Natalie Foster, LAMFT, ATR, an intuitive mentor and registered art therapist who sees families at Integrative Art Therapy in Phoenix, and adults at True Self Institute in Scottsdale.
Below, Medford and Foster share the different ways we can use art to practice self-care.
Collage your emotions. Self-care includes acknowledging, honoring and holding space for our emotions. When Medford is stuck on a difficult emotion, she creates a collage about it using old magazines and found papers. She looks for images, colors and shapes that express how she’s feeling. It’s a quick and messy process. Which is the point: These collages “are more about processing the feeling than making ‘art.’”
Play with clay. “Clay is a very kinesthetic and grounding media that helps us feel in control when things are not so orderly in the ongoings of our lives,” Foster said. Crayola makes an air-dry clay, or you can get non-drying modeling clay and store it in an air-tight container, she said.
Draw your mood daily. Medford has a journal that contains pages with 2 x 2 inch squares. Every day she fills in one square expressing her mood that morning. “A big part of working through my anxiety is noticing how it feels in my body, and what images and colors it brings to mind,” Medford said. “Paying close attention to my experience, and drawing what I find, helps me to take some of the power away from the feelings and gives it back to me and my creativity.”
Look without looking. Draw a loved one, or something in your environment, such as a car or tree, without looking at your notebook, Foster said. Make your drawing realistic or make it weird or abstract. When you’re done, use pastels or watercolors to fill it in.
“This exercise helps us to let go of outcomes and become less attached. It might be uncomfortable at first but practice compassion for yourself and keep going.” After all, self-care is self-compassion.
Tell your story. Foster suggested creating an altered book. For instance, every day or once a week, you decorate the pages in any way you like. You might include important mementos or personal photos. “Over time the right story will come out—whether it’s your whole life story, or the story of your growth in the past year.”
Practice mindful drawing. Medford has recently started this series: She picks a photograph of a complex natural subject, such as a close-up of tree bark, and tries to draw the details as accurately as possible. She uses her own photos, or Googles what she wants to draw (like “gooseneck barnacles”).
“I intentionally choose images that bring up feelings of resistance and overwhelm, with the goal to work through those emotions.” She sets a timer for 15-minute intervals, and keeps her pen moving the entire time.
“As thoughts and feelings come up, I acknowledge them, show them compassion, take deep breaths and open space for them. But I don’t let them stop me from drawing. I’m improving my drawing skills, but more importantly I’m training my mindfulness and compassion muscles.”
Explore what you’re creating—and letting go. One of Foster’s favorite ways to connect to herself and her needs is to make art about what she’s creating and what she’s letting go. “As humans, we are constantly evolving,” and art can help us take a closer, deeper look at our personal evolution. For instance, you might explore letting go of a relationship or belief. You might explore creating a new habit.
You can create any kind of art: “Don’t try to force it or plan, just go with what feels right when it comes to media, images, color, form, and symbolism.” Foster does this activity at least once a month, “even if it’s a quick marker sketch in between sessions.”
Use art as a release. This is another powerful exercise for relinquishing regrets, resentments, tension, trauma or any negative experiences. On a piece of paper use words or images to represent what you’re releasing, Foster said. Next, being very careful, take the paper to the sink, and light it on fire.
“While the page burns, imagine that you are fully releasing, surrendering, and clearing whatever ‘stuff’ the page was about. Breathe deeply, and imagine that you are sealing yourself up afterward, perhaps taking the time to set new intentions,” Foster said. Then create a new page with words and images that illustrate how you want to feel. And post it somewhere visible.
Foster underscored the importance of feeling safe and ready to do this activity, because forcing yourself to get over something before you’re truly ready can spike shame and anxiety. If you need extra support, consult an art therapist, she said.
Host an art party. Another vital part of self-care is connection. Several times a year, Medford invites people over to make art. “Socializing while creating is very nourishing for me, and I really enjoy giving other people time and space to nurture their own creativity.” Sometimes, she has a theme—making Christmas ornaments—and sometimes she asks people to bring a project they’re currently working on.
Lastly, writing about your art can spark important insights. Foster recommended journaling after you’ve completed a piece or project and then returning to it weeks or months later: “How have you changed since making the piece? How do you still think you need to adapt in order to reflect what you are creating in your life?”
Art helps us accept and explore our emotions. It helps us embrace mistakes and foster self-compassion. It helps us play and connect with others. It helps us discover what we want and what we need. Which are all vital ways of nourishing ourselves.