When you’re feeling down, or experiencing a variety of difficult emotions at once, you can often find relief by engaging in an art activity as self-care. Today I want to share with you some specific art exercises that can help you cope with difficult emotions, especially in times of uncertainty.
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As I write this, we are experiencing the very uncertain time of the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully by the time some of you are reading this, this fearful period is behind us, people are generally healthy and back to life as usual.
But for now, it’s a difficult time. Nothing is certain. Numbers of the disease are uncertain, as tests are not yet readily available to everyone. Cures or vaccines are being worked on, but still not ready for use. Finances and jobs are uncertain, as people are ordered to stay home and avoid gathering in groups. Millions unemployed further exacerbates the problems.
Waiting and worrying.
And so we wait. We wait for vaccines. We wait for more testing so we can go back to work without fear of becoming infected or infecting others. Most of all, we wait for this all to pass. We wait to get back to normal life.
It’s a nerve-wracking time. We worry about so many things, quite understandably. But how do we care for ourselves when our worrying starts to make us sick?
Helping your self.
Self-care during these times is critical. When we find ourselves frustrated from quarantine, overwhelmed with anxiety, or burdened with depression from our uncertain futures, we need help.
For some, it means finding a professional therapist, talking through concerns and gaining some perspective and tools to coping with difficult emotions in ambiguous times.
For all of us, we need to maintain balance in our lives and make time in our daily lives for some nurturing self-care.
What is Self-Care?
Self–care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Although it’s a simple concept in theory, it’s something we very often overlook. Good self–care is key to improved mood and reduced anxiety. (https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-self-care-is-and-what-it-isnt-2/
There are many different ways to consciously include self-care in our daily lives. Some basic measures are choosing a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising daily, seeing a doctor regularly and committing to relaxation exercises to manage stress.
Nurture your mind and emotions.
Avoiding negative situations and turning off the news or other stimuli that may cause anxiety is also a form of self-care. As is setting healthy boundaries in our relationships so that we can love others from a place of strength and emotional wellness.
And finally, spending time with family and friends, and engaging in fun and meaningful activities and hobbies is also extremely important in maintaining a healthy mind and body.
Art as Self-Care
There is also an important connection between creative hobbies and mental health.
Simply focusing one’s mind on what your hands are making is a wonderful way to escape the worrisome wanderings of your brain for awhile, to let yourself relax and enjoy the moment.
Self-care or Art Therapy?
Taking that relaxing hobby a step further, some people benefit from professional art therapy. Evidence suggests that there is a connection between art and mental health; that art-based interventions are effective in reducing stress and psychological outcomes. A properly trained art therapist can lead the individual in more in-depth art activities based on the patient’s specific emotional/psychological needs.
The ideas I am suggesting today are merely self care art activities, designed to help you feel better in certain situations. If, however, any of these drawing activities brings out strong emotions or thoughts that are overwhelming or potentially destructive, please consider consulting a therapist in your area for professional guidance.
Self-care Art Activities
The following activities are intended as open-ended suggestions; therefore, no specific or formal art materials are needed. You may use whatever you have on hand. However, I will list a few of my own favorite art supplies, just to give you some ideas of what you might like to try:
- Paper or blank sketchbook – I prefer a mixed media journal, which usually means a notebook of paper heavy enough for some wet media (watercolors, acrylic paints), yet smooth enough for drawing and collage, as well.
- Drawing pencils – Pencils of various thicknesses are handy to have, especially a darker charcoal pencil for heavier shading. My favorite pencil is the Stabilo “All” pencil, in black. The “All” pencil is a water soluble pencil that makes beautiful sketchy marks dry, yet will transform your work into a beautiful painterly look when you go over it with a wet brush.
- Color markers – Drawing with colored markers is always good for instant gratification, in my opinion. I like using dual tip markers, with both a fine tip on one end, and a smooth brush tip on the other.
- Acrylic paints – Whether heavy body artist grade acrylics, or simple inexpensive craft paints, acrylic paints are great for bold color, smooth texture and quick drying times.
- Watercolor paints – A simple pan of watercolor paints will also suffice.
Doodle, Draw or Paint: Activities for all your moods
The following is a list of difficult emotions, followed by a particular drawing or painting activity to help you relax, lean into positive emotions and find relief. These self-care ideas are not meant to diagnose or treat symptoms of mental illness. If you are feeling a heightened distress while engaging in these activities, please stop and consult a mental health practitioner.
Sadness- paint a rainbow.
There’s something about applying these juicy hues of the spectrum in rainbow stripes that makes the heart smile. Rainbows are also symbolic of hope, of the promise of sunny days and better days.
Listless-draw landscapes, feel more grounded.
Connecting to the solid earth around us can help you feel back in touch with yourself and your life, and with the lives of those around you. Perhaps taking a walk through natural areas can also improve your well-being. You might even be inspired to paint the scenery you saw, once you return from your walk!
Need focus- draw grids and a target.
Drawing or painting a bright red bull’s-eye can draw your mind’s eye to a focus point, both literally and metaphorically. Drawing the circles around the bull’s-eye can remind you of the layers that lead up to your focus, the different elements of your life that surround your main intention at this time.
Indecisive- draw waves and circles.
Doodling wavy lines and circles repetitively may help soothe you as you process through competing thoughts and desires.
Angry – tear up a piece of paper.
Whether it’s an angry letter to someone, which you never planned to deliver anyway, or just some random pages of a magazine, tearing up paper can feel quite satisfying, definitely therapeutic, when you’re angry!
Nostalgic – draw a maze.
As you work your way through drawn or painted pathways, think about the ways your own life may have felt like a maze at times. Some mazes have several different pathways that end up at the same place. Perhaps your life took the longer or more difficult routes to get there, or perhaps you took short-cuts.
Reflect on these various twists and turns as you mindfully move your pencil or paintbrush along. You might want to draw new pathways as new possibilities you are hoping will open up for you. Different colors of ink or paint could represent different phases of your life.
Difficulty understanding conflicting desires – make a collage.
Images are powerful things. Sometimes when we are confused by our conflicting thoughts and clouded emotions, the appearance of random images in magazines can bring out the “aha!” moments that bring clarity to the mind.
In making decisions or setting goals or intentions for a new season of life, people often create a vision board, a collage of pictures that illustrate their ideas and strong desires for their future.
During an uncertain time such as this pandemic, these pictorial expressions of focused desires and goals can bring back meaning and substance to one’s well-being. Restoring and affirming one’s values and desires, through the intuitive process of collage, is an art therapy activity anyone can participate in, regardless of artistic background or skills.
Confused – draw a mandala.
A mandala is a symbol of the universe for many Buddhists and Hindus. Most mandalas have colorful, detailed geometric patterns or designs. The word mandala, is simply a circle, in Sanskrit.
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, is credited with introducing the Eastern concept of the mandala to Western thought. According to Jung, mandalas symbolize “a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness”. Drawing or coloring these circles with intricate geometric shapes is believed to create a “spiritual space”, an experience of wholeness amid the chaos of everyday life.
Mandalas can be simple. First, trace a circle by drawing around the edges of a small plate or other circular object. Then begin randomly doodling and coloring inside the circle, starting in the center. Don’t worry about it looking symmetrical or complicated. Just enjoy this time of creative self-care.
Pick up a mandala coloring book, very popular these days with the trend of adult coloring books, and enjoy the relaxing hobby of coloring in these intricately designed circles. Just the act of mindful, relaxed coloring will help relax you and put you at ease.
Stuck – draw spirals
This is a good one for our current situation. I can personally attest to feeling very “stuck“, quite often, in these past weeks (and counting!). In fact, it has taken me an unreasonable amount of time to even finish this blog post, due to my creative mind also being on a serious “lock-down”!
Where do you go when you feel like you’re living in the repeating nightmare of the famous Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day”?
For me, the motion of drawing or painting a large, intricate spiral brought a sense of drawing nearer and nearer to my center, as I drew the spiral from the outside, in.
Think about peeling off your outer layers, the parts that people see, and drilling down to the core, the very heart of you.
Once you are in that spot, that very center of your spiral, pause and reflect on what you find there. Who are you, in the center of it all?
Spiraling in or spiraling out?
Now take that sense of self, and begin a new spiral, from the very inside, moving out. Who is in your inner circle, your most intimate souls? Who else does your life affect as you spiral outwards? Try to think in a positive flow, applying all your good characteristics, your talents, your love and compassion, to those you imagine along the way.
Are you in a season of spiraling inward right now, or outward? Or both? Think about how you can find balance in your life, by taking the time to spiral inwards when needed, applying self care to your inner you. And then also spiraling back out and sharing your love with the world!
Difficulty understanding your own feelings – draw yourself.
Sometimes in times of crisis, we feel out of touch with who we are and how we truly feel about things. Drawing your attention to your facial image, by drawing a self-portrait, can help get the focus back on who you are, outside of whatever situation you may be facing.
When was the last time you looked at yourself in a mirror? I mean, really LOOKED at yourself. Not just to check your hair, your make-up, your outfit before heading out the door.
This self-care or art therapy activity will have you taking a closer look at yourself. It can be done either literally, as a study in facial proportions, or it can be done more abstractly, going a little deeper into what makes up this wonderful person of you!
Now if you’re like most of us, you may protest and say, “oh, but drawing faces is too hard!” If so, don’t worry, you’re not alone. And I will try to answer that cry in an upcoming post, giving you some pointers and guidelines in how to draw a face.
For now, just have fun with it. Consider making it in finger paints and create some wildly colorful painting of a face, like the one above.
Or, you could try your hand at drawing yourself as best as you can, then cover up the areas you don’t like, (like the mouth and one eye, as I did in the above picture..) with random magazine images for a silly, surreal look.
Abstract Collage Self Portrait
Or take it a little further, and add more collage elements, like the art journal spread, above. Here’s what you do:
- Draw a simple face that’s at least vaguely similar to your own, using whatever medium you choose. (paints, colored pencils, markers, etc.)
- Gather a few lifestyle magazines, or magazines with pictures that interest you. Flip through them in a relaxed mode, intuitively choosing the photos that resonate with you, and clipping them out. They could be images that symbolize your interests or hobbies, or words that describe parts of your personality, or what you’re going through right now.
- Trim those words, phrases and images, then glue them on or around your face drawing, as you see fit.
- For more on this type of collage art journaling, read my article, Basic Art Journaling: Inspirational Collage.
Scattered thoughts need to be arranged – draw repeated patterns of squares
In pre-pandemic times, life and its routines were mostly predictable. As long as you got your ducks lined up in a row, events marched along smoothly, and you looked forward to special social events that you could confidently schedule in advance.
Today, however, those same ducks are caught in a murky pond of uncertainties! This work event (if you still have a job!) can only happen with certain restrictions, or not at all. Those social events at the end of your week? Might need to settle for Netflix and chill, instead. What about big events, like weddings, graduations, celebrations of life’s milestones? Maybe, maybe not.
Why can’t we go back to life with its orderly boxes and rows?
Maybe you can, figuratively, at least. You don’t need to be Kandinsky to create a satisfying painting of squares, like the famous piece, above.
Just try this:
- Find a large sheet of paper, the bigger the better. Turn it on its side, to give a landscape view.
- Lightly pencil in a grid, creating rows of four squares each.
- Lightly draw a circle in each square, followed by smaller, concentric circles.
- Enjoy painting each circle, the circles and boxes surrounding them. One at a time. Mindfully. Appreciating the fact that when you finish one box, you can go on to the next, only changing colors for variety.
Ahh, the predictability, how comforting!
Desperation – draw roads.
Sometimes times like these can bring great heartache, loss, frustration, depression and desperation. When you’re in the darkest of times, you really need a support network of loving family and friends, and maybe even professional help.
If you’re still at a manageable level of distress, consider drawing roads, as symbolism of a way out of your difficult situation.
When you’re driving down a road, all you see is the road immediately ahead of or behind you. But when you look at a map (either a real old-fashioned paper map, or Google maps zoomed out!), things look differently. You see different pathways ahead: Crossroads. Roads along beautiful scenery. Roads that go in a completely different direction.
Go ahead and draw some winding roads. Draw plenty of crossroads, of unusual paths to wherever it is you’re heading. And may it remind you, that where you are now, is not where you’ll be some time from now. Things will change, eventually, and let’s have faith that they will be better times.
I hope these art therapy ideas will help you practice self-care during uncertain times. Keep a private journal, either a designated art journal, sketchbook, or ordinary notebook, to keep your creative self-care activities. If you’ve never tried art journaling before and would like to get started, click around this site under the Art Journaling category. Or find another creative hobby. Just take care of yourself, and we will get through this.
Thanks for stopping by, stay safe!