Art therapy can be valuable in dealing with anxiety. It can become another healthy tool in our collection, whether your anxiety is occasional or chronic. A great benefit of art therapy is its ability to calm the nervous system: when we focus on creation, our attention is turned away from worrying musings.

When our attention has changed, our nervous system can begin to regulate itself. And we can have more access to the rest of our brains, thoughts, emotions, empathy and compassion. This allows us to process more difficult experiences.

Art therapy also allows us to express ourselves non-verbally , which helps us move away from our thoughts to see a visual expression of a situation. This can provide more distance from the situation; it can contain and allow a different perspective.

Additionally, the simple act of creative expression connects us to an inner sense of vitality, which can be exhilarating.

3 art therapy techniques to deal with anxiety

Here are three art therapy activities to help us explore our anxiety and gain calm.

Anxiety expressing itself

This is one of the techniques that combines paying conscious attention to your body while drawing intuitively. It is suggested to do this exercise when you feel anxious.

First, gather the following: blank paper of any size; drawing materials (colors); headband; and any favorite material. Tape the paper to your surface. Close your eyes. Consult with yourself and see how you feel the anxiety in your body. Observe where in your body you feel anxiety and how you know it is anxiety.

Next, open your eyes and choose a pastel color (or whatever drawing tools you are using). Close your eyes again and draw a continuous squiggle without lifting the utensil from the paper. Do this “as if the anxiety were expressed on the sheet. Stop when the movement or expression feels complete.

If your mind tends to judge or control, use your non-dominant hand. Now look at the doodle you made. Flip the paper from side to side until you see an image emerge. “It may not make sense but try not to think about it too much.

Using other colors or materials, develop the image. Then write freely for five minutes. You can write about the process of drawing your anxiety or the image. Or you could ask the image these questions: “What do you want it to know? Why are you here?

Anxiety often acts as our protector, so your responses might be: “I’m keeping you safe”; “I keep you safe from difficult feelings”; “I make sure you do the right thing”; “I make sure you don’t end up on the street”; “I make sure you don’t get hurt.”

A collage of tranquility and security

This exercise tries to create a visual reminder of a safe place. It is useful to calm fear and vigilance.

Gather blank paper, magazines, old photos, markers, and a glue stick. Take several deep breaths. Let yourself be carried away by the path of memories, remembering any moment in which you have felt calm, safe or pleasant. It can be a location or with a person. If you can’t recall a memory, imagine a place or person that is relaxing and enjoyable.

Start going through your magazines. Cut out images that capture your attention and remind you of the memory or the feeling of tranquility or pleasure. Try to let the images choose you instead of searching for the right image.

That is, choose images that appeal to you even if they don’t make sense or don’t fit what you’re thinking. Maybe you have an inner feeling of like or attraction. You may linger longer on this image, while fast-forwarding with the others.

Once you have a collection of images, organize them to create a general image or metaphor that speaks to what it is like to feel safe or at ease.

Once you’re done, you can use the image as a reminder of security and serenity. See if you can imagine yourself in that safe or pleasant place and how you feel in your body; evoke all of your senses to truly embody the feeling.

What anxiety looks like

For this exercise, use whatever art-making materials or techniques you want. You can paint or draw your answers. Or you can create a collage. Consider these questions:

  • If anxiety had a body and a personality, what would it look like? How would you speak? What would you say? What does it matter to you?
  • How is your body or your life under the grip of anxiety? What would it look like if the anxiety was no longer present?

Sometimes it can seem that anxiety is the ultimate enemy. It feels so awkward, maybe even scary. Also, it could prevent us from doing the things we really want to do. Art therapy can help us become curious about our anxiety and better understand its reasons. It can help us access calm, reminding us that tranquility is really within us.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses. He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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