Healing Anxiety with Expressive Art
All of us experience anxiety in varying degrees. Your anxiety might be a daily struggle or it might only come up when you’re facing a stressful situation. I specialize in facilitating a wide range of expressive arts modalities, and I offer insights into how to use the expressive arts for navigating anxiety. Below, I share my thoughts about the deeper meaning of anxiety, along with how creative self-expression can help. I also share four exercises you can try to calm your mind and body.
In my experience, anxiety is a mind-generated “cover up” for the deeper emotions that we are afraid to feel. Anxiety sits “on top” of difficult emotions that are stored in the subconscious. Anxiety arises from the inner conflict between the “social self” that we present to the world, and the other aspects of self that we have repressed and disowned.
Anxiety is most often a resistance to the aspects of ourselves that we fear expressing, whether they be dark or light. Self-rejection fuels anxiety. Self-love calms anxiety. When I work with someone who is struggling with a great deal of anxiety, we gently begin looking for the emotional need for acceptance that has not been met by other people.
Invariably, the root of all anxiety points to our genuine need for unconditional love for all our aspects of self. If we are experiencing anxiety, we can begin to search for the emotions, drives, desires, and aspects of self that feel out of alignment with who we are “expected” to be in our family and social groups.
Traveling back to learn the lessons hidden within our anxiety can be done through spontaneous art making and story writing. These two modalities balance both sides of the brain. The left side of the brain is logical, sequential, and it relies on the security of memory to feel safe. (The left brain likes to write memory based stories.) The right brain is the home to our unpredictable intuition, the subconscious storage of our emotions, and the rich symbolic imagistic language of our bright originality. (The right brain likes to create intuitive art.)
How Creating Expressive Art Helps With Anxiety
Creating intuitive/expressive art can help with anxiety in a variety of ways. First and foremost, expressive art can facilitate the release of emotions. If you are feeling heavy-laden with unprocessed emotions, I suggest engaging in a daily creative writing and/or art practice to facilitate what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called “symbol release.”
Uncensored self-expression is a benevolent helping process. Siphoning off the excess build-up of emotional energy through spontaneous writing and art making is a cathartic form of anxiety release unto itself. And, upon deeper reflection, the art and writing can reveal the limited patterns of thinking that create the difficult emotions in the first place.
The simple meditative act of making art can calm anxiety as well. Taking our mind off of our problems with an all-absorbing creative activity creates a quiet inner space so that new growth solutions can “pop up” from the subconscious mind. Giving ourselves a break from our anxious thoughts invites our innate originality to arise and inform our growth steps forward.
4 Simple Ways to Calm the Mind and Body Through Art Making
"Concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety." ~ Jack Nicklaus
1. Coloring for Calm – The popularity of adult coloring books speaks to the calming effect that concentrated focus brings. I have seen this calming phenomenon in my therapeutic art studio work. People who suffer from anxiety calm down profoundly when offered art projects that have intricate patterns to color or paint. Painting or coloring within detailed, pre-drawn designs can concentrate the mind’s focus so profoundly, anxieties are forgotten for a time.
2. Zen Doodling – Zen doodling is a popular method of relaxing the mind through doodling. It can be a good structure for any beginner who simply wants to relax and shut off the mind through the detailed drawing of repetitive patterns. If you prefer not to doodle from your imagination, there are many good books on the market that provide structured templates to doodle within.
3. Scribble Drawing – Scribble drawing is a tried and true spontaneous art exercise that works well as an introduction to spontaneous drawing. Scribble drawing was developed by art educator, Florence Cane. Her sister, art therapist Margaret Naumburg, implemented the scribble drawing when she started a progressive school for children in 1914 that encouraged spontaneous creative expression.
Method for Scribble Drawing:
a. Create a quick and spontaneous scribble, or as Cane described, “play with flowing continuous line” on your page – with your eyes open or closed.
b. Scribble until you feel finished, but avoid making your scribble too dense.
c. After you have finished your scribble, turn your drawing around to contemplate it from all angles.
d. Similar to seeing shapes in clouds and inkblots, allow your unconscious mind to pick an image out of the scribble.
e. Develop your found imagery with heavier lines. Embellish your imagery with details, doodles, patterns, and colors.
f. After you are finished, intuitively name your drawing.
4. Spontaneous Collage – Spontaneous collage involves choosing images “randomly” from a book or a magazine, and gluing them down in a non-rational way. Using the principles of projection, our inner emotionality chooses imagery that it resonates with. The pictures that stand out the most strongly will have an emotional charge that can be contemplated for deeper self-understanding.
Expressive Art Books
Because the body cannot tell the difference between a real image and an imagined image, it is important to create new symbols of strength after processing emotional pain. I love the transpersonal approach to art and healing in the books Art and Healing, Visual Journaling, and Drawing from the Heart all by Barbara Ganim.
To change the negative feelings in our emotional body, more unlimited truths often need to be introduced. We can unknowingly “recycle” our emotional pain by repeatedly expressing our limitations in our artwork. For many years I made this mistake in my own expressive art practice.
After the repeated emotional catharsis through my drawings, I began to feel discouraged by the consistent negative patterns that I saw in my art. Thinking I was releasing my pain, I would draw my same set of inner limitations over and over.
Ganim’s transformative approach to artmaking involves creating symbolic representations of wellness to meditate upon after emotional pain has been expressed. We can heal anxiety at its root by asking our body for inspired imagery to meditate upon to help us emotionally heal.
Healing Inner Conflict
Many people are afraid to “let loose” in the creative process for fear of what might be revealed. It is helpful to understand that imagery often expresses emotions that our mind might not want to accept. It might be comforting to know that our subconscious mind will generate images of shame and emotional pain first, and then images of forward-growth will be revealed after.
It is also helpful to know that we are presently feeling is arising to be healed. Avoiding the natural timing of our innate emotional healing process can create great anxiety. Because our emotional struggles are often expressed symbolically in imagery before they become verbal, sustaining a regular spontaneous art making practice can facilitate a precognitive emotional release that calms anxiety at the root.
The symbolic release of emotional pain through expressive art making invites something new to emerge. Emotional release calms the body and provides “space” for our deeper mind to generate new psychological symbols for growth. Meditation upon these positive symbols can lead to the tranquility of body, mind, and soul. There is a self-healing potential within all of us that can be accessed through the open-ended process of spontaneous art making.
I invite you to explore symbolic release of your emotions HERE.