How Art Therapy Can Help With Anxiety
Embracing Creativity Supports Wellness
All my life, I’ve been told that I’m creative. But due to fear, low self-esteem, or some other internal conflict, I’ve always found a way to counter those good-intentioned arguments. As a child, sure, I wrote short stories, “but I never finished them!” As an adult, I was convinced that I couldn’t call myself a photographer if I hadn’t yet been paid by someone else to do it.
When I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” years ago, I clung to a quote of hers like a lifeline and have had to repeat it to myself at different moments ever since:
This hasn’t “cured” my tendency to question the legitimacy of my creativity—old habits die hard, folks—but when I let it, it has granted me clarity, kindness, and relieved me of self-produced pressure. It’s reminded me to loosen my definition of “creativity” and understand that not everything needs a co-sign.
Oftentimes when we think of art, especially for those of us who don’t consider ourselves to be creative, we think of crafts and content made by other people. They’re the works that we hang on our walls, the pieces we place on our shelves, the sounds we listen to, the visuals we watch in awe. But creating can be beneficial to all of us, our mental health and our emotional wellbeing, no matter how artistic we may or may not naturally feel.
According to board-certified art therapist Youhjung Son, “Art can help us regulate our emotions by allowing us to focus and tune into our bodily senses; releasing physical tension through the act of using, touching, and manipulating certain art materials; and creating a sort of a ‘distance’ between us and our emotions.”
When we make art, we can experience what Son describes as a “flow state,” which helps us release our current worries and embrace the present moment instead. “Many clients say to me that they gain new perspective and insight on their emotions when they make art,” she added. (BTW, we love Son’s ‘Thirsty for Art’ channel for its weekly videos full of tips, how-tos, and activities, and she’s got an awfully cute Instagram, too.)
If you experience anxiety, depression, or other emotional and mental challenges, art therapy can be a source of relief and means to healing—especially if those feelings have been exacerbated and their treatment threatened due to the isolation and unpredictability of COVID-19. For the affected and diagnosed, communicating creatively may come more easily than expected.
“Creative expressionism is an inherently intuitive application for individuals experiencing anxiety and depression,” says training clinician and counselor Paige Swanson. “[It] can be used as a system of imaginative thought, self-expression, and inner-resourcefulness for those who no longer have the language to express their hopelessness.”
If you’ve been seeking an outlet to express the feelings that overwhelm you or the words you struggle to say out loud, try art therapy as a form of release. Below are arts and crafts you can do at home without a ton of tools or even “talent.” And once you’ve mastered one or two—which we know you will—check out six more crafts that make the perfect hobby. If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, also know that it’s okay to reach out to a therapist for more personalized guidance.
Drawing can feel like familiar territory. You likely doodled unconsciously in the margins of your notebook as a child and may have done so more recently while in a meeting for work.
Drawing for mental health, however, can be intentional. Using your preferred paper and tool of choice—crayons, colored or charcoal pencils, felt tip markers—you can aim to sketch your emotions as they emerge. Ask yourself, how do I feel? What do my feelings look like? What color are they? (This tutorial also offers prompts and questions.) Later, feel free to go back and review your imagination’s output.
If staring at a blank page incites more feelings of discomfort than it does freedom for you, try coloring to get calm. Relieve yourself from the pressure to create something original by using the fixed lines as a guide; that way, you can focus less on innovating and more on emoting. And just like when you were a kid, the decision to color within the confines or outside of them is entirely up to you; opt for whichever would bring you the most peace. Once comfortable, experiment with shading and blending techniques. Naturally, though, the first step is getting yourself a coloring book.
Also known as modern calligraphy, lettering may help calm a mile-a-minute mind. Mastering the soothing brushstrokes takes lots of concentration and dedication. However, what the practice requires in time, it doesn’t in materials. You won’t need more than a single brush pen to start, though you’re bound to collect more colors as your creativity and capabilities expand and improve. Begin with tracing paper (or digital templates if you’re using a tablet and stylus) to learn the foundational loops, lines, turns, and curves, then start to explore your own unique style. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up with your own font.
If venturing into the world of ceramics (and the forming, firing, and glazing that it takes to make, say, a passable mug) piques your interest, go for it! But before all that, you can simply start with a handful or hunk of clay. The malleable material is at your mercy. It can be molded, pinched, and carved to your liking to reflect your feelings so that you can release them.
Ask yourself, what shape do my emotions have? Are they smooth or textured? Then it’s up to you to either keep your creation, sealing it for good and giving it a space on your shelf like a souvenir, or bidding it adieu and balling it up again. (It’s worth noting that clay dries naturally within a few days, so if you’re looking for something to knead over and over again, look for kid-friendly clays and “doughs.”)
Maybe the idea of creating original art immobilizes you. Decision-making can feel daunting if you’re stressed about your “skill” level. Collaging can be your comfort. Consider it a passive approach to making art; instead of inventing, you alter what already exists. Grab some old magazines, a glue stick, and a pair of scissors and get to collaging! Opt for either being intentional in your choices, picking images and phrases that speak directly to your state of mind, or let your hand lead the way and review your selections later to see what they reveal. Check out this tutorial for tips on layering and composition.
We don’t need to be “artists” to practice art. What we do need as humans, however, is to express ourselves. Doing so allows us to reflect on, connect with, and feel comfortable in our most authentic selves.
So whether you’re feeling anxious or at peace, stagnant or scatter-brained, turn to an art form and try your hand (literally) at releasing the energy that no longer serves you onto your canvas. Or clay. Or coloring book.
Have you tried making art to nurture your mental health? 🎨 Share your experience in the comments below!
Danielle Cheesman was born and raised in New Jersey, where she lived until moving to Philadelphia to study journalism at Temple University. She has spent her years writing and developing editorial visions for music, art, and lifestyle brands. Now residing in Los Angeles, you can usually find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!