The intensity of Maureen “Marzi” Wilson’s anxiety varies day to day. Some days, it’s a “mild uneasiness,” a nagging feeling that she’s forgotten something important. “Other days, it’s closer to terror, a horrible premonition that something catastrophic is imminent,” she said.
The outward expression varies, too. Sometimes, she fidgets. Other times, she’s “sitting in the corner of a closet wrapped in a blanket.” Because “some days are harder than others,” she said.
Wilson has been struggling with anxiety since she was a teen. Several years ago, she was trying to figure out the best way to cope with her anxiety, which prompted her to start creating illustrations online. She’d also taken a personality quiz, and discovered that she’s an introvert. She wanted to understand more about her introversion and her anxiety.
As she writes in her insightful, inspiring, funny, poignant book Kind of Coping: An Illustrated Look at Life with Anxiety, “I’d assumed that my limited social circle and my preference for solitude were due solely to anxiety. But it turns out I’m an introvert who has anxiety. And I became committed to understanding what that means.”
Wilson created a doodle named “Marzi,” who’s trying to figure out how to navigate life as an introvert who also struggles with anxiety at IntrovertDoodles.com.
For Wilson, creating these illustrations helps her to express her “fears and hopes in a therapeutic way.” “It “enables me to make sense of my feelings. Writing and drawing help to clarify my intentions, and that makes it easier to follow through on my goals,” she said.
That’s the thing about creating and making: It helps us to better understand who we are. It helps us to unravel our many layers, and brings us closer to our core. And, ultimately, it helps us to cope with our struggles, whether those struggles are around having anxiety or depression, losing a loved one, or dealing with a painful situation (or all of the above).
Wilson noted that releasing our thoughts “onto paper or canvas [can keep] them from taking up space in your head.” And that can provide meaningful relief—and insight. When we use creativity as a tool to work through our thoughts, feelings and challenges, we can make sense of our inner turmoil, and even soothe it. We can get to its root. And we acknowledge, name and honor our experience, which is a powerful way to care for and bolster our well-being.
Here are five ways you can use creativity to explore and cope with whatever you’re struggling with.
Describe the details. In Kind of Coping, Wilson illustrates what it’s like to live with anxiety on a regular basis. For instance, in one illustration, she notes that anxiety is problems with prioritizing (“I don’t know what to do first!”), and thinking that every decision you make is wrong. It’s “bodily mutiny,” with headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, nausea, shaking, sweating and exhaustion. It’s irrational thoughts: “Nobody likes me,” “I’m a failure,” “Something terrible is going to happen,” “I’m so stupid,” “I’m not safe.” It’s “messy moods,” such as overwhelmed and irritable and afraid and detached.
Spend some time identifying the details of your struggle. Then draw these details. You might create a comic like Wilson. Or you might think about the different creative outlets you enjoyed as a child—making up stories, drawing animals, keeping a diary, dancing—and use those to explore and name the specifics of your struggle and situation.
Paint the whirl of emotions. Focus solely on your feelings. How are you feeling right now? Channel those feelings into a painting, letting them dictate the colors you use and what you create. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, so you splash paint onto your paper, and move it around with your hands. Maybe you decide to depict what your depression feels like during the course of a day using different shapes. Maybe you decide to paint your grief in its messy, multilayered stages.
Write about the quality of your feelings. It can be hard to put into words precisely what we’re feeling. In Writing for Emotional Balance: A Guided Journal to Help You Manage Overwhelming Emotions, psychologist Beth Jacobs, Ph.D, notes that “Emotions can blend together like watercolors, and a physical sensation such as a knot in your stomach can indicate a variety of feelings ranging from excited anticipation to anxiety to fear or rage.” Which is why she suggests exploring the qualities of our feelings with these sentences:
- If this feeling was a color, it would be ….
- If this feeling was weather, it would be ….
- If this feeling was a landscape, it would be ….
- It this feeling was music, it would be ….
- It this feeling was one object, it would be ….
Create a conversation. Write out a conversation between you and whatever you’re struggling with. Maybe that’s a conversation between you and your anxiety. Maybe it’s a conversation between you and a mistake you made. Maybe it’s a conversation between you and a trait of yours, which you’ve been disappointed about (e.g., your shyness, your sensitivity, your introversion).
Use your genuine curiosity to delve deeper. What do you want to know about this situation, this illness, this challenge, this trait? You might ask questions like: What do you want to tell me? What are you trying to teach me? Why? What do you need right now? What are you really upset about? What’s on your mind? How can we become a team?
Use creativity for encouragement. At the end of Kind of Coping, Wilson features an illustration of the many reasons to keep going: the blooming of a plant you grew, clean sheets, constellations, the first sip of coffee in the morning and the sparkling of grass with early morning dew.
Consider drawing your own reasons to keep going, seemingly small reasons that put a smile on your face or soothe your soul. Or think of another way you can use your creativity to encourage, support and uplift yourself. Maybe you write yourself a letter or a poem. Maybe you snap photos of everyone and everything you love, and create a collage or a small, tangible album. You can keep it with you, and look through it any time you need some comfort and a reminder of all the beauty and love that surrounds you. Or maybe you create something else that gives you hope, like this other illustration from Wilson’s book:
Creativity is just one way we can cope. For instance, Wilson’s comics complement her other coping strategies: She sees a therapist once a week, takes medication, practices self-care and stress management, and uses cognitive techniques for redirecting anxious thoughts. She also bakes, sews and skates, which are hobbies, she said, that are calming and provide a sense of purpose. Plus, “lots of puppy cuddles” help, too.
Through her illustrations, Wilson said that she’s lucky to have found an incredibly supportive community on Instagram (@introvertdoodles). “The most beautiful part of this journey for me has been realizing that I’m not as alone or as weird as I thought I was…I’m not the only one learning out how to (kind of) cope, and neither are you! It’s something we can figure out together.”
And that’s another powerful benefit of creativity: connecting over our shared humanity. Or, in short, kinship.
All images are from Kind of Coping: An Illustrated Look at Life with Anxiety.