Whether it’s doodling in a sketchpad, playing with clay or shooting an image on your iPhone, making art can reduce stress and improve your mood
By Julie Revelant
Between adult coloring books, paint-and-sip parties and 700 million active users on Instagram, creating art is trendy and becoming easier and more accessible than ever before.
Making art can be just plain fun, but experts say whether you consider yourself an artist or can’t draw a straight line, it’s also a powerful way to reduce stress, express yourself, and find your inner Zen.
“Art can be, in many ways, very stress-reducing and self-soothing and everyone needs that,” explains Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, a board certified and licensed professional art therapist in Louisville, Kentucky and author of What To Do When Children Clam Up In Psychotherapy.
Katherine F. discovered that art could help her through tough times. She already loved to create collages in college, but in her early 20s, after a break up with her first love, she took up painting to infuse some positivity back into her life.
“I would be up until 4 o’clock in the morning-the time would just pass and I loved it,” Katherine says.
Katherine, who runs her own casting company and often has to deal with the pressure to meet tight client deadlines, says painting still helps her handle stress and feel calm.
“When I’m painting, I’m not looking at my phone. It’s the only thing I’m focused on.”
“When I’m painting, I’m not looking at my phone. It’s the only thing I’m focused on,” she explains.
ART AS MEDITATION
Art-making offers some of the benefits linked to mindfulness, positive psychology, and gratitude, according to Sharona Bookbinder, a registered psychotherapist and registered art therapist in Toronto who serves on the board of the Canadian Art Therapy Association.
“It’s about taking a little bit of time for yourself to get in touch with your inner self,” she explains.
And science backs her up.
Studies show that exploring art, regardless of the format, activates your brain’s reward pathways. When people doodled, drew or colored, blood flow in the brain’s prefrontal cortex increased, a recent study out of Drexel University found. This is the area of the brain that regulates our feelings and thoughts and is also related to our brain’s reward circuit.
Art can double as a form of meditation, especially if a meditation practice has been hard to make into a habit.
Like meditation, informal art therapy calms the mind if you can narrow your focus, go with the flow and not make any judgments or overthink it.
“Some people are not able to take their minds off of their worries and so they need something to actually distract their minds from the worry,” according to Jill Howell, a registered and board certified art therapist as well as a licensed professional counselor in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and author of Color, Draw, Collage: Create Your Way to a Less Stressful Life.
Michele J. of California, a creativity coach by night who works in the business office of an orthopedics clinic by day, says she often feels stressed when she has to call insurance companies to get authorization for MRIs.
A few months ago, her stress got so bad that she found herself struggling with dreams about MRIs. Her husband suggested she see a doctor, but she decided to simply pick up a pencil and pad instead.
“I feel that I can completely disconnect from my day through that art.” – Michele J.
“Now I doodle quite often at night and what I find is that it’s so meditative,” says Michele. “I really have to concentrate on the shapes that I’m making and the design I’m doing and I feel that I can completely disconnect from my day through that art.”
While she’s on hold with the insurance companies at work, Michele will either doodle or color in a coloring book.
“It doesn’t take me away from work. It allows me to disconnect while I’m on hold and be present for what I’m actually dealing with on that call,” she explains.
CALM THROUGH CREATIVITY
“The process of art-making allows for distraction and distraction is the key to stress-management.” – Jill Howell
When you take the time to do something that occupies your mind and floods your body with positive emotions, you simply don’t have the bandwidth to think about things that cause you stress. When you’re in the zone, your body’s parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and your body becomes calm and relaxed.
“The process of art-making allows for distraction and distraction is the key to stress management,” Howell says.
Experts say creating art can be helpful in weathering challenges we often face and building or strengthening resilience.
Mauricio B. had to adjust to new limitations after a brain injury six years ago. The 60-year-old lost a lot of his friendships, and it took him a long time to understand and accept that many of his physical and cognitive abilities had changed.
“I was a very angry person for a year or a year and a half or so,” he says.
All that changed three years ago, when a friend told him about the Josephine Herrick Project, a nonprofit organization that offers photography programs for underserved communities. He learned how to use a digital SLR camera and shoot street and nature photos.
Mauricio continues to shoot and edits his photos every day, which he says brings him happiness, gives him peaceful quiet time, and allows him to stay centered.
“It’s such a calming sensation,” he says.
WINDOW TO THE SOUL
Malchiodi has found photography to be a great way to get people involved in an art form.
“It’s also an experience of ‘me-making’ because it’s all these images that you take as portraits of your life as it is.”
The brilliant thing about using art as a creative outlet is that you don’t have to be Van Gogh or da Vinci to reap the benefits, says Howell. Regardless of the type of art you choose, the key is to enjoy the process and not worry about the final product.
“We don’t take enough time for self-care, and self-care prevents the stress build-up. So don’t wait until you’re feeling so stressed that you can’t enjoy an activity,” says Howell.
As for Katherine, painting is something she carves out time for three to four times a week because it restores balance to her life. Instead of using brushes, she explores movement by discovering different ways to maneuver the paint on the canvas or what happens when she tilts it or changes the consistency by adding water or alcohol.
The pride and accomplishment she feels is icing on the cake.
“I dedicate a lot of time to it and I see it through and that says a lot about just loving something-something being your passion,” she says.
Easy Art-making Activities Anyone Can Do
Not an artist? No problem. Here are three easy ways to unleash your inner artist today:
Make a collage: Cut pictures out of magazines of things that bring you happiness or places you want to go and create a collage or vision board.
Doodle: Grab a sketchpad and some colored pencils and doodle, trace objects or free draw.
Play with paint: Instead of striving to paint a masterpiece, experiment with different materials like watercolors, sponges, or even glitter glue. Michele J. likes to use alcohol ink on a variety of materials. “You have to let go of perfectionism because the ink flows and it just doesn’t ever quite do what you want it to,” she says.
Tips To Make It Fun
Before you start, experts say there are some things you should do:
Make it easy: If gathering your supplies and setting up your space is an arduous task, you’re less likely to make a habit of it. So create a dedicated art space or nook in your home where you can leave out your supplies. Or put together a grab-and-go bag of art supplies you can bring with you while you’re waiting in the doctor’s office or using public transit.
Be selective about what you share: Instagram makes it easy to crop, apply effects, and add a filter so your photos will look professional-but using the app could negate the emotional benefits you’re striving for.
Make sure you’re completely comfortable with what you post; also, think about your expectations and reactions to other people’s comments, as there is potential for anxiety with any social media network.
Reach out for support: Studies tell us making art stimulates the emotional part of our brain; while this can bring us joy it can also unlock painful feelings from your past. “It can bring back memories, it can bring back emotions at almost full strength,” says registered art therapist Sharona Bookbinder. To help you cope, have someone in your life who can help you sort through your feelings: a family member, friend, support group or a counselor.
Printed as “Keep Calm and Make Art,” Winter 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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