How does Art Therapy help with Anxiety?

How does Art Therapy help with Anxiety?

Dealing with anxiety can be challenging. It might feel like you have very little to no control over what it is doing to you. In this blog post, I want to discuss how art therapy can help you relieve some anxiety symptoms, help you understand your anxiety better and form a healthy relationship with it. 

An analogy for anxiety 

I want to first start with an analogy to understand anxiety better, as I find that it’s often a complicated relationship. I hope this will help to rethink how you relate to anxiety and lessen the pressure you feel with it.  

I like to think of anxiety like our very own private bodyguard team. It’s been there for as long as you are here, and their main job is to make sure that you are safe, physically and mentally. They are a security system that’s always around us, and they are constantly surveilling our surroundings within a safe distance. They take notes on what was threatening to us, so if they see anything that resembles a threat, they can pounce forward and form a human circle around us to make sure nothing harmful comes through. They are annoying and make us very uncomfortable sometimes, but they are essential to our survival.  

Ideally, our anxiety bodyguard will only appear when you need them, and they are just waiting on the sideline when you don’t. However, the anxiety bodyguard can become overwhelmed when exposed to constant stressful situations or threats. (This can come in many different forms. It can be from a relatively big stressful event or minor stressors that build up over time. I want to highlight this here because some people may think that they have to go through a traumatic event or abuse for it to consider stressful. It doesn’t have to be) In that case, they would think having this security system 24/7 on autopilot would be best for your survival. So, in reality, even when there is no apparent threat, our minds and bodies are trained to think like there are and would react as if the threat is as real as the arm attached to us. Over time, you are constantly anxious and exhausted all the time. There is no space and time to recuperate, and you’re on high alert to protect yourselves. 

With this understanding, what can you do, and how can art therapy help? 

  1. Art Therapy can help bring you back to the present moment and help cope and relief some anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety can often takes you out of the present moment and back into the past or jumps ten steps into the future when you feel anxious.

You may be ruminating on past events as you think about what you did wrong in the past and how you can make sure that those mistake doesn’t happen again. It can also bring you to a state where you worry about the future. Nothing has happened yet, but you are already thinking about a million scenarios of how things can go wrong. All of this can lead to being overwhelmed and feeling out of control. This process can be very tiring, and it takes you to a place where you are reacting instead of responding to the situation in alignment with who you want to be and what you believe. 

In an art therapy session, the art therapist can guide you in some art directives/exercises to allow yourself to slow down, take a pause and connect with yourself. These exercises can range between 2 minutes to 15 minutes, and this will give you the space to sink back into the present moment again and take a break or slow down your anxious thoughts. 

Of course, it takes practice. I like to try a few of these exercises in sessions to find out which exercises work best for you and suggest you practise that in between our sessions. When we meet again, we can discuss how it was or was not helpful and make changes to it as we go. 

I find that this is the foundational step in working with anxiety. Building this foundation will help you develop a more substantial baseline to return to whenever you feel anxious. It is like building our muscles, you may only be able to lift 10 lbs today, but with practice, you will be able to lift 15lbs as you go, and you will also understand yourself better through this process. 

2. Externalize your anxiety.

When you’re feeling anxious, many of the symptoms like increased heart rate, restlessness, racing thoughts, impending dooms are all happening within you. In an art therapy session, when you externalize the anxiety in art, it provides you with the support and safety from your art therapist to process those thoughts and feelings. This process can help you feel a sense of catharsis and validated in your own experience. 

This externalization through the art process may look like choosing a colour that reminds you of your anxiety and drawing a patch of it or drawing long striking lines up and down the page.

That visual may be more elaborate for some people, like a tornado wiping houses and cars along its way or a ball in a chain around your ankles. If thinking of an image is hard, we can also make collages with magazine images or expand on a magazine image that reminds you of your anxiety. There are no right or wrong ways of doing this; just finding your expression. 

Externalization helps separate the ‘problem’ from you from a narrative therapy perspective. In this case, seeing your anxiety outside of you can help you see the separation between you and your anxiety. If you have dealt with anxiety for a long time, it would be natural to associate your identity with anxiety, affecting how you relate to yourself and the world. 

When you start seeing the separation, it gives you space to see who you are without your anxiety. This shift in perspective can be pretty powerful for some people, as it might have been a while since you have considered yourselves outside of your anxiety. It will also be a good time to draw and look at who you are outside of your anxiety and connect with your values. 

3. Learn how to build a healthier relationship with anxiety

Externalizing your anxiety also gives you external access to build a healthier relationship with it. First, it’s essential to acknowledge how you relate to anxiety right now. As I have mentioned earlier, anxiety is here to protect you, but this does not mean that you will automatically be acceptive of anxiety. There was a long history between you and anxiety, so let’s give it some space for those feelings. 

And then, you can take time to understand more about your anxiety. I like to invite my client to draw anxiety out as a character for this part. This process helps you personalize anxiety and create more space and distinction between you and your anxiety. We can look at the character together to understand how long they have been there, what they want from you, what they need as support etc. One good exercise to work on is to talk to your anxiety character and give it a voice. I find this process to be both beautiful and frustrating, as you are just learning to communicate with a part of you that has caused you much pain and frustration. Still, at the same time, this is where you can get to know our anxiety better and maybe build a new foundation on how you both can work together to help you achieve your goals. I know this part may sound a little abstract, but it will make sense as you begin a conversation with your anxiety character. 

  1. Using art therapy to help track and check-in with anxiety

Another way art therapy can help with anxiety is to use art to help track our symptoms. There are different ways to do this. My favourite way to track our symptoms is through a body scan – a short meditation, where you connect with your body to see how it is doing and then draw it out on a gingerbread person outline. The body scan meditation is a great way to help ground ourselves and increase our body awareness. Drawing it out uses the concept of externalization mentioned above so you can see what is going on in your body. This process can usually bring some relief, as it can be very validating to see this in front of you. You can do this every session with your therapist, or it can be an end-of-the-day reflection to track how your anxiety was for the day and how it showed up in your body. 

When you put the drawings together, we can start to see some similarities and do some detective work here to notice any patterns or events that may have caused the symptoms to worsen or improve. When we have identified the stressors/triggers, we can work on processing why that is and what might be helpful at those moments. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this article! I know anxiety can be challenging and may hinder you in your day-to-day life. It takes time, and with practice, there is a way to lessen the symptoms and have your anxiety work with you instead of against you. My supervisor always says ‘slow is fast,’ we have to slow down, take our time in the beginning to process, build before we can go fast, and we’re here for you! 

I hope this blog post has been helpful. If you’re interested in trying art therapy to help you with your anxiety, please do not hesitate to reach out for a free 15 min consultation. Thanks for reading!

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