As an art therapist for over four decades, I’ve been able to give my clients simple yet enjoyable tools for dealing with stress. Whether the stress was related to a chronic or life-threatening illness, divorce or separation, job security, or any number life crises, scribbling and drawing have proven to be powerful ways to release pent up emotions, worries, and self-judgment.

In order to embark on the adventure of stress release through scribbling and drawing, a few simple art materials are required.

  • Unlined paper – 8-1/2 x 11 inches or larger
  • Old magazines or newspapers
  • Crayons – 12 colors or more
  • Felt markers – wide tip for drawing (optional – fine tip felt markers)
  • Your favorite recorded music
  1. Scribbling: Warm Ups

If you are like most of my clients and students, your first reaction to the idea of drawing may be, “I can’t draw” or “I have no artistic talent.” Or you may be thinking, “I’m not an artist, I just do quilting.” The point is that the vast majority of people get nervous when I ask them to draw. Their inner art critic immediately shouts them down as being uncreative. That’s why I start with warm ups, recommending that they scribble on old newspapers or magazines to get past the fear of making mistakes or drawing something that is ugly.

We are not making art with a capital A here. Rather, we are allowing the stress we carry in our bodies to literally flow out onto paper using simple drawing tools. So, try it now. Imagine a stressful situation in your life. If you can’t think of one, recall the most recent stress you experienced. With a crayon or wide tip felt marker, use any color to scribble out the feelings associated with the stressful situation you pictured in your mind. Imagine being in kindergarten again and scribble to your heart’s content using whatever colors appeal to you.

  1. Dancing on Paper

We all know that music is a stress reducer. Scribbling to music takes it a step further.

Put on some music that you enjoy. Using a crayon or wide tip marker in the color of your choice, draw to this music as if you were “dancing on paper.” Start by drawing with your dominant hand (the one you normally write with). Draw for a few minutes and then, with another crayon or maker, include your non-dominant hand (the one you do not normally write with). You’ll be scribbling with both hands, creating a duet on paper.

Don’t try to make pictures of anything. Instead, think of this as leaving marks on paper the way ice skaters leave tracks on the ice. These marks are the tracks of your stress literally being shed onto the paper.

  1. Drawing Feelings Out

We all carry unexpressed emotions in our bodies and we even express it with phrases like “butterflies in my stomach” or “a pain in the neck.” We also use colors when talking about strong feelings: “red with rage,” “green with envy,” or “feeling blue.”

The next time you become aware of strong emotions being bottled up inside your body, dump them out on paper with crayons by scribbling. Choose colors that express the emotions you are releasing. There is no right or wrong color for any emotion, only the color that feels right to you. After a while, switch hands and draw with your non-dominant hand.

  1. Moving from Tension to Relaxation

One way to relax is to accentuate the experience of tension by tensing up the body as much as possible and then allowing yourself to relax and loosen up with an outbreath. This experience can be extended through scribbling two contrasting images. Image one, drawn with the dominant hand, is “what tension looks like.” Use whatever color you associate with tension. On a second page, draw with the non-dominant hand “what relaxation looks like.” Select a color that feels relaxing to you.

  1. Slowing Down

In our fast paced world with pressures to meet deadlines and achieve instant gratification, slowing down is a great way to release tension. Using a crayon or wide tip marker in the color of your choice, try drawing as slowly as you can using the non-dominant hand. Making continuous circular loops on the paper can help you relax while you draw more and more slowly. If relaxing music helps you slow down, accompany your drawing with the music of your choice.

  1. Turning Stress into Inner Peace

Much of our stress is caused by negative images and expectations in our own minds. We practice “negative affirmations” every time we worry about painful or uncomfortable situations in our lives. On the other hand, we can use drawing to create a positive image, a relaxed mind and body, and inner peace.

With your dominant hand draw a picture of a stressful situation in your life. This can be simple stick figures or even abstract lines and shapes.

Now, imagine in your mind what the stressful situation you drew would look like if it were resolved to your satisfaction. With your non-dominant hand draw a picture of how that looks.

  1. Creating Your Safe Place

Imagining a place that is safe and comfortable can help to calm ourselves down when we are feeling anxious and stressed out. A safe place can be a location you’ve actually experienced, or it can be one you make up in your imagination. This can be drawn with the dominant or non-dominant hand using crayons and/or makers. It can be a simple portrayal of a place in nature, a cozy room, or any other place that has personal meaning for you.

If your inner art critic starts bullying you about your drawing skills, just tell it to take a coffee break. Remember, we’re not making art with a capital A here.

Allow yourself to play with colors, shapes, and lines on the page. Who knows, you might even find an inner artist that is longing to come out.