How Art Can Heal Anxiety

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“The soul always knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is the silence the mind.”
– Caroline Myss

When will this stop? Perched on the edge of the couch in my dark apartment, I draw deep breaths and pinch my eyes shut, my head in my hands. My throat constricts and terrified, half-formed thoughts chase each other around my mind like a swarm of wasps. This will stop, this will stop I repeat over and over, forcing myself to believe that it’s true, that there’s no real danger. I wait for my throat to relax and this attack to be over.

Welcome to my early twenties. Several times a month I’d call my husband to bring me home from my college classes because my mind wouldn’t stop racing and I was sure I would have a grade A panic attack in front of everyone. I’d come home and sweat, panic, feel sick, dart from room to room trying to settle on something to do, and eat pounds of chocolate to cope with constant fear of…something. I could never put my finger on it. Whether the constant anxiety was brought on by too much change all at once, school stress, social awkwardness, or a glitch in the hardware of my brain, I could barely function.

The worst part was that the flourishing creativity I once enjoyed was missing, which both worried and depressed me. All I’d ever wanted was to be a writer and artist, but between my busy life and the constant war in my mind I couldn’t find the time, motivation, or courage to create anything. I was so afraid that whatever I’d create would be horrible, and therefore prove that I am not good enough and that my creative talents, what I believed to be my only talents, weren’t good enough to make a difference in the world or make me successful.

Ironically, as much as I feared creating, it was art that set me back on the right track and reminded me of the creator I’d always been.

Eventually I graduated, tried a few different jobs, and found an apartment with a spare bedroom to use as an art studio. For the first time in ages I set up my easel and a canvas, bought a cheap set of paint, and dug out my brushes from high school that were gathering dust.

I started painting. Years later, I haven’t stopped.

And I haven’t had a panic attack since.

As terrifying as creation can be, I’ve found that the best way to calm that anxious mind is to actually be creative and make stuff.

There’s no trick beginning. Get started. Take the first step now, no matter how small. Smear a little paint on a canvas. Fiddle around with your guitar. Write the first line of a poem. Go to the art supply store and pick out something that looks fun, then reap the healing benefits of pure creativity:

1. Creating gets us out of our everyday minds.

Creativity seems to happen in a different part of my mind than the anxiety. I’m no psychologist and I couldn’t tell you which lobe houses anxiety and or which set of synapses governs creativity, but I know I can’t focus on both at once. When I’m painting, I live in my eyes and hands. My monkey-mind shuts off. Whatever’s going on in my head gets muffled as I watch trees grow beneath my brushes, colors bloom and swirl on the canvas. When you throw yourself into a creative project, your brain just doesn’t have the room to worry because it’s got a job to do that’s not only more fun and engaging, but requires all of your attention.

2. Art is an emotional outlet.

Sometimes we don’t know how to articulate our, often because it barely makes sense to us. But maybe we can express that in a color, or a dance sequence, or a musical note. Art transcends words and reaches the parts of our spirits that have no language. Sometimes all you need to do is let that fear out where you can see it, onto a canvas or a blank page, where it’s easier to deal with than when it’s lurking in the back of your mind. Sometimes, all that fear needed was to be acknowledged and expressed, and the art might be the solution you were looking for all along.

3. Art helps us solve problems.

Creating is problem solving. You want things to look or sound a certain way, and you figure out how to do that. Something isn’t right, so you find a way to fix it. Even if you screw up the whole thing and end up painting over your work, tearing up the paper, or starting over from scratch, look around you. The sun is still shining, the birds are still singing. You are still breathing. So much of anxiety is worrying about the worst possible outcome, but the creative process demonstrates that even if the worst happens, it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t have to mean anything. You just pick yourself up and start over again, from wherever you landed when everything exploded in your face.

4. Creating is play.

Nothing calms ragged thoughts better than play. The point of play is to be lighthearted, to have fun for the sake of fun and not care about the outcome. It’s easy to lose the attitude of play when you’re neck deep in a panic attack because everything feels like a life or death situation. Creativity is a safe place to explore, try things, mess up, and be silly. Start a project without a plan, making it up as you go just to see where it ends up, without expectations or attachment to a certain outcome. Splatter paint, make up a silly dance, write a goofy poem or story, or plink on a piano like a little kid. Play!

5. Art is a soothing ritual.

Routine is comforting, especially when the routine itself is something that nourishes you. Once you get into the habit, your brain will learn to shut up when you get in your creative space. Switching from frazzled to creative will get easier and easier. It’s like a workout regimen for your creative mind.

Few things in my life are a grounding as my studio practice. No matter what is going on in my mind, art reminds me who I am, that the real me is a creator and not a nervous wreck. It allows me to separate myself from the anxiety and realize that we are not one and the same.

It’s scary, but start creating. Make something. Anything. Art will take you back to who you really are.

What does creating do for you?