A Healthy Way to Calm Anxiety
Art can be a powerful tool to help manage anxiety, giving us a way to express emotions and calm the mind. Even if you don’t normally think of yourself as someone who is good at art, you can still find benefit in engaging with creative self-expression.
As an art therapist, I help clients use art in their healing journey. And in my personal life, I often turn to art for my own mental health. There are several ways that art can feel helpful and therapeutic. Art can give us an outlet to express and release upsetting emotions, it can help build insight or explore the ways our subconscious thoughts are represented in the art. Art can help us find enjoyment, relaxation, or a sense of accomplishment in creating something, and it can be a positive distraction from anxious thoughts.
Although Art Therapy requires working with a trained art therapist, you can also use art on your own to experience some of the positive benefits of creativity. There are a few things that I would encourage you to keep in mind. Try to focus on enjoying the process of art-making and expressing yourself, setting aside judgment about whether the outcome is “good” or not. Have a mindful attitude, remaining in the present and bringing back your attention when you notice it has wandered. Set an intention for your art process – for example, are you trying to express a feeling, create something beautiful, or distract yourself with a soothing activity?
Here are five ideas for using art to manage your anxiety.
- Mandalas – A mandala is art created in a circular form, often made up of repeating, symmetrical patterns. The word mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning “sacred circle” and has traditionally been connected to meditative practices. There are a few ways that you can use mandalas to soothe anxiety. The first is to try coloring printed mandalas (mandala coloring pages are easy to find online to print out). Research has shown that coloring a mandala can decrease stress and anxiety more effectively than coloring other types of designs. If you feel ready to challenge yourself a little in the art process, try to create your own mandala. You can start by tracing a circle on your page, then add designs inside of and around your circle. If you want a little bit more support in getting started, you can also print a simple mandala and add more patterns to the open areas. As you work on your mandala, whether drawing or coloring, remember to remain mindful and present, setting aside any judgment of the art.
- Art journal to express emotions – An art journal is similar to written journaling as it provides a place to put down your thoughts and feelings, allowing you to release them on the page without worrying about what others think. There are many ways to use an art journal, but one way is to visually express what you are feeling. Start by taking a moment to check in with yourself and pay attention to how you are feeling. Then think about what colors you associate with those emotions. Use lines, shapes, and colors to express your emotions on the page. You can try to do something abstract that may just look like scribbles and shapes of different colors. Or a symbol or image may come to mind that you want to put on the page. Because this exercise is just about acknowledging and releasing your emotions, don’t worry about what the final outcome looks like.
- How you want to feel – Sometimes it can be more helpful to our mood to focus on positive emotions instead of the uncomfortable or distressing emotions. Start by thinking of an emotion that you want to be feeling right now or that you want to feel more of in your life. Then create a piece of art about that emotion. It could be just abstract colors and shapes, a symbol that represents the feeling, or a memory of a time that you felt this emotion in the past. As you work on your art, mindfully focusing on the art and the desired emotion may allow you to be more in touch with it.
- Safe or peaceful place – Imagine a place where you would feel safe and peaceful. What would you see around you? This can be a place that you have been in the past or can go to now in your life, a real place that you would want to visit, or a purely imagined place. Use drawing or painting to create an image that shows your safe, peaceful place. Remember that it doesn’t matter whether your art is “good” or not; try to have fun with the process. If you would like to try collage instead, you can find various images (from magazines, photos, or online) that represent what helps you feel safe and what your peaceful place would be like, then combine those images on the page together. When you have times of anxiety, try closing your eyes for a few minutes and “visiting” your peaceful, safe place in your mind.
- Zentangle – Creating a zentangle is often soothing for anxiety both because it does not take any special artistic ability and because the process of repetitive movement and pattern often feels calming. To draw your own zentangle, use a pencil or pen to divide your page up into several smaller segments. You can do this by creating a loose scribble on the page or drawing several lines to break up the page. It’s often recommended to use a small piece of paper, like an index card, for your zentangle, but you can use larger paper if you wish. Fill each of the small sections on your page with a pattern or design. Allow your mind to focus on the drawing of the patterns, trying to set aside any other thoughts. If you notice your mind start to wander to worries or stresses, bring it back to the art process.
Even if you have not thought of yourself in the past as someone who is artistic, I encourage you to try a creative activity and see how it feels. When you are doing art for your self-care, it really does not matter how the final product turns out. You can use the art as a way to non-verbally express how you are feeling, get in touch with more positive emotions, or distract your mind with something soothing. And if you discover that you need more guidance or find art a helpful way to express yourself, consider reaching out to an art therapist for further support.