Stressed? Reach for your sketchbook. Studies have shown that making art and drawing is a powerful tool to combat stress.
Your pulse accelerates, your breathing is tense, and your head hurts. You want to shout at your spouse, snap at your neighbour, and head for the fridge. You are stressed.
Current medical studies show how chronic stress negatively impacts health, potentially compromising numerous systems in the body and leaving us more vulnerable to a host of health issues from infections to insomnia. While tolerance to stress is individual, common triggers range from life-changing events to living in constant overdrive.
Fortunately, there are a number of stress-reduction strategies that can easily be included in a fast-paced and busy lifestyle.
Reach for your sketchbook. Studies done with cancer patients and their caregivers have shown that making art is a powerful tool to combat stress. While you can also exercise, chant, or garden, art offers specific advantages to battling stress.
Here are six ways in which the visual arts can help knock stress out of your life.
Drawing and the relaxation response
Wondering how to calm down in the midst of overwhelming deadlines? Grab a pencil. The rhythmic and repetitive motion of drawing helps synchronize hand and eye, body and mind, and can be used to elicit what Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, has identified as the relaxation response.
RR, as it is called, is a physical state of deep rest and an alternative to stress’s fight-or-flight response. It is characterized by positive states such as a decrease in blood pressure, diminished respiratory rate, and lower pulse rate. Recent research has also shown RR to result in characteristic gene expression changes, showing a potential genetic “fingerprint” associated with the response.
Do you worry about past arguments with your children or fret about whether you will get a promotion? A lot of stress is caused by ruminating over past events or worrying about the future. Shifting attention to our senses can land us more fully in our bodies and in the present, helping us let go of anxious thoughts.
This mindfulness can be achieved by bringing attention to seeing or sensing, hearing or tasting, as is done in meditation, but visual art can offer a further tool by providing a focus for sensory perception.
Drawing, for instance, can help us connect with our sense of sight, slowing down our seeing and making it more embodied. Sketching a peach, we can take note of the fuzzy texture of its skin, the subtle shades of pink and orange, and the late afternoon light tinting it. As we do so, we can become more fully present to the moment.
Releasing and expressing emotions
It’s tempting to dismiss painful feelings, bury the anger we may have toward a family member, or numb sadness we feel when losing an important relationship. Repressed emotions, however, can blind us to stressful situations or encourage us to internalize strain.
While having a crying fit in the middle of an important meeting or lashing out at a colleague can prove problematic, art, on the other hand, can provide a safe space to express, let go, and work through stuck emotions.
According to Cathy Machioldi, an expert in the field of art therapy, when it comes to releasing emotion, visual art has the advantage of being nonverbal, enabling one to express emotions that may be difficult to put into words. Creating a gestural painting by working with rhythmic brushwork or depicting images that evoke withheld feelings can be used as effective tools to release pent-up emotions.
Reframing: creating analogues with art
Being stuck in traffic a chance to relax? Relocating to another city a chance to meet new people? In the 21st century, stress may more often be the reaction to a perceived threat than an actual one, more about running late than running from a large creature. Therefore, reframing (or looking at a problem from a new perspective) can lower stress levels by changing our perception of the issue at hand.
Translating a problem into visual form or creating a visual analogue is a powerful way to reframe it and to see it in a new light. Creating an analogue can also help us visualize solutions.
We can work with scale, edge, and colour to explore further ways of shifting our visual interpretations. Shrink the large shapes that represent work overload. Lighten up the dark circles showing conflict. Or simply turn the analogue upside down to discover new possibilities and meanings.
Often, we may be stressed and not even know it. Gaining greater self-knowledge can help us identify why and when we are stressed, giving us the capacity to remove stressors or find ways of supporting ourselves when in stressful situations. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living (Delta, 1990), points out, it’s difficult to let go of tension if we deny having any.
Visual expression can help us get past our inner censor, less active in image-making than in language, and connect with parts of ourselves that may have been blocked off. Working visually, we can access our unconscious with greater ease, where we can find out more about our true selves.
Beyond all the shoulds and oughts, what do we really need and want? Malchiodi believes that in making art we begin the process of exploring our beliefs, and we may find the reason for pain or depression or identify sources of joy and creative potential.
Enjoying ourselves Finally, taking time out to enjoy ourselves is crucial as it helps us exit the vicious circle of stress and recharge our batteries. The visual arts can help us regain our sense of play as we delight in colour or experiment with new materials. And when making art, we can bring about the profound satisfaction of activating the creative self, an essential part of our makeup as human beings.
Access your inner life and enhance your self-knowledge by creating a dream collage.
Materials: magazines, paper, scissors, glue stick
How to: think of a dream. Select images in magazines which evoke it. Cut and paste, experimenting with composition and colour. Let the final image speak to you, writing down thoughts elicited from the work.
Photographic visual diary
Pay attention to the world around you and inhabit the present more fully by keeping a visual diary.
Materials: a camera
How to: photograph what you find intriguing, moving, or beautiful. Play with contrasts such as close/far; empty/full; and light/dark. Title and date your photos, arranging them in an actual or virtual diary.