How Art Helps to Heal Anxiety
“This is the art piece that I painted when I had severe anxiety
The paintings help me understand what I need to do to soothe myself. Like in this one I came to know that I want some time in nature and observe the tranquility in it”.
These lines were sent to us along with the image portrayed above by Zeebil, who found art as a medium to express her emotions and thus found relief from anxiety.
Art or any form of creativity, like writing, poetry, knitting, or making collages, is a proven method to help us manage difficult emotions at the most challenging times of our life, or a healthy way of coping with anxiety due to Trauma, PTSD, or other chronic medical or mental health conditions.
FMRI or Functional MRI studies done in post-retirement adults, who were divided into 2 groups showed that the group that was subjected to a 10-week art intervention, had more functional connectivity in the frontal and parietal areas of their brains, thus increasing their resilience to psychological stress. (Bolwerk, Mack-Andrick, Lang, Dörfler, & Maihöfner, 2014).
The same testing has confirmed that exposure to art stimulates both brain hemispheres and hence is used to treat neurologic conditions like Stroke and Traumatic brain injury.(Demarin, Bedeković, PureƟć, & Pašić, 2016)
Another study done by neuroscientists at the University of Toronto found that art activated the visual cortex and other deeper state areas of the brain that were responsible for the pleasure and reward (serotonin) system. And serotonin has been a proven chemical, deficient in the brains of people who struggle with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety, panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, as well as depression.
Even though psychotherapy is the gold standard for many mental health conditions, there are times when expressing thoughts and feelings, whether it is in children, who have not formed effective language skills yet, or in a certain severe form of OCD, or Trauma-related anxiety, where anxiety is so overwhelming, that clients have a hard time expressing their emotions, in such cases, Art therapy combines creative therapeutic processes and psychotherapy to enhance self-exploration, healing, and understanding.
One does not have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. You must simply be willing to make marks in the presence of a qualified art therapist.
If used in combination with other treatment methods, research shows that art therapy calms our nervous system. It becomes a form of mindfulness exercise or meditative activity which can help soothe symptoms of stress, nervousness, and irritability.
Art therapy has been found very beneficial in resolving deep inner conflicts thus leading to relaxation, and inner peace.
Art therapy helps us express ourselves in a safe manner. With the guidance of a compassionate and experienced therapist, individuals with anxiety can learn how to express their feelings in a creative and constructive manner.
It also leads to more self-awareness and one can discover new aspects of themselves.
Art therapy has been found to be extremely therapeutic in helping the victims of PTSD. Art expression is a powerful way to safely contain and create separation from the terrifying experience of trauma,” writes board-certified art therapist Gretchen Miller for the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children. “Art safely gives voice to and makes a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts, and memories visible when words are insufficient.”
Even in OCD art therapy can serve as a form of ERP, or Exposure response prevention, which is a gold standard therapy to help one face intrusive thoughts of this debilitating condition. When a person draws his or her intrusive thoughts, he learns to face them, hence it becomes a form of exposure, which might then help ease the feelings of anxiety related to these thoughts.
As therapy progresses one might draw more explicit or scary images to increase tolerance. For children, drawing their thoughts may help reveal more than they have the capacity to communicate. Hence it can be a great way to face their fearful thoughts.
Even though one can use any medium of art, watercolors, sketching, canvas, paints, pencil colors, etc, and indulge at home, in whatever way one chooses to explore his or her imagination. However, one has to be careful especially if one has been through a traumatic past, or even in severe OCD, sometimes some colors or mediums can be triggering, hence working with a professional may be more effective and safe. These professionals may work in the:
mental health clinics
Art therapy can also be combined with many modes of counseling, including individual, couples, family, or group counseling.
To find an art therapist near you, use the Art Therapist Locator through the American Art Therapy Association or just call your insurance provider.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
– Thomas Merton