Many of us struggle with various forms and manifestations of anxiety. The latest statistics from the Mental Health Foundation (2013) show there are 8.2 million cases in the UK.
Likely there are many people in your world with anxiety, perhaps you experience it yourself. Not all anxiety looks the same, so it's important not to generalise and assume it only manifests in one or two ways. With this in mind I offer this blog post as a list of suggestions that you may find helpful when you are struggling.
These suggestions have been brought together to help you understand not only that art can be extremely helpful for people living with anxiety, but also why.
Remember you are the expert of your own experience and how important it is to choose materials and exercises that feel safe for you to use and do.
1. Utilising repetition - choosing an activity that is simple and comforting is a good idea, *cough* collage *cough*. When you're feeling overwhelmed choosing something that doesn't require you to absorb too much new information allows you to engage quickly without incurring more stress, i.e., cutting images out of a magazine. If holding and using scissors is not an option for you try tearing or using pre cut images or stickers.
Repeating the collage process, finding images - cutting them out - sticking them down in an arrangement, for several minutes can result in feeling soothed. It's simple, we know how to do it and the results are fairly predictable and in our control. The predictability is so soothing because it offers us an alternative experience from what we may be feeling in an overwhelmed state where we aren't sure how we will feel from one moment to the next.
Spending time in this repetition cycle can remind you of other experiences where you felt more in control or balanced which may help you move through overwhelm. Or at least bare it.
2. Setting time boundaries - Commit to focus on an art activity for a set period starting with something manageable, maybe 5-10 minutes. If it's helpful for you to have less decisions in the moment consider a time boundary in advance and maybe write this down somewhere.
Fixed parameters when we feel out of control or invaded are incredibly grounding and holding. Similarly to the experience of predictability with repetition, knowing when something is going to finish can be extremely helpful when in an anxious state that feels open-ended and unchanging. It reminds us that things, times and experience do pass.
Remember to set realistic time frames and be gentle with yourself if you need to stop and rest. Sometimes a failure to endure the time frame can become some thing we measure ourselves against, not helpful. This is not a test, if it feels so, try something else.
3. Sensory expression - When intense feelings of anxiety strike it can be helpful to remember to comfort your body as well as your mind as they are completely connected - something we forget a lot of time time.
Surround yourself with colours and textures that appeal to you - don't forget smell is an important sense as some art materials have rather strong scents which may be wonderful or off putting.
When you're making your art image notice how paying attention to your senses compliments repetition in working to soothe and still the mind. Feeling the art making/ viewing process in your body unifies the whole experience and cares for every component of you. Our mental selves are not more important than our physical selves (or vice versa), so caring for both will likely yield greater positive impact.
Basically, support your internal world and the external one it lives in.
4. Practicing downloading - Making an image when we have intense and powerful feelings can help us expel some of the energy out of our bodies. It can be extremely cathartic to use the intensity of feelings to make something, which you can you keep or throw away depending on what feels right for you.
I like to think of it as downloading a file (powerful feeling) onto an external hard drive (the artwork / image), freeing up some space on the computer (your mind/ body). Some people can find it useful to see their feelings outside of themselves by capturing it on paper.
If you think making artwork to express yourself is something you want to do but you are worried the images that you may create being triggering, scary or too much to manage on your own then please don't do this by yourself, it's important that you stay safe so working with an Art Therapist may be a good option for you.
You could jot down ideas you have for artworks you want to make and then explore these with a certified Art Therapist where you will be safely supported to do this with a professional who can oversee the process and your responses.
5. Art viewing - Making art doesn't work for everyone, if that's you then why not try art viewing? It may sound a little strange but this simple process can yield surprising results.
Find images you like when you're feeling calm/ have some time. Maybe save a collection on instagram or buy an art book or magazine. It doesn't need to be artists, for some people looking at images of clothing or architecture is comforting for them - whatever works for you, make sure you have a collection or pile somewhere to hand. The reason I suggest saving a collection on instagram or on your phone is so you have it in your pocket when you're out and about making it accessible in more situations.
Look at the images when you're struggling or feel overwhelmed and think about what it is that draws you to them/ why do you like them? You may find that looking at something familiar that you like has an immediate calming effect but that you also notice new things within the image or it causes you to consider something else or connect to another memory. It's both distraction and redirection for your mind, helpful when your anxious to move out of this state, even if momentarily.
Below I have included some links to artists, therapist search engines and material ideas if you don't currently own any art materials and are unsure of where to start. Please remember art preference is so individual so what I suggest may not work for you.
The below links are starting points and by no means exhaustive. If you have any questions or find something brilliant you wish to share, please feel free to get in touch with me - firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on instagram
Francis Macdonald - part of the Glasgow four - dreamy watercolours
Johanna Goodman - collage wonders
Vincent Van Gogh - landscapes
Henri Matisse - cut outs - bold, colourful, dynamic
Links for finding a therapist:
Art material ideas:
Clay - good for working in 3-D / making abstract shapes / satisfying texture
Biros and notepad - great to cost effective scribbling / super transportable
Acrylic paints and large sheets of paper - awesome if you have a garden and want to slosh a load of colour at a large surface - incredibly satisfying.
Scissors, pritt stick and selection of magazines - cutting and pasting images and words is great for repetition and surprisingly addictive.
Thank you for reading and please remember to above all take care of yourself and reach out to friends and family or seek professional help if you notice you are unable to cope or manage.
You are worthy of a good life, remember that.
Finally, if you notice a decline in your mental health or you are struggling beyond the point of being about to cope please seek professional help:
Contact your GP/ o to A&E if in immediate risk
Samaritans: call 116 123 or email email@example.com (24-hour response)
Text SHOUT to 85258 for crisis line
Start therapy, google BACP or BAAT
Love always and keep collaging.