To help reduce stress, draw upon the healing powers of art
Soon after becoming an empty nester, Doreen Bell
sunk into a nasty depression-or as Bell puts it, "I lost my
She'd spent the past 20 years raising an active family in
Kildeer, Ill., packing every day to the max, and now she needed to
fill a lot of free time. She discovered mosaics. And she began to
prolifically create. "When I'm in my artistic place, there's no
space in my brain for stress. None. I don't know what time it is. I
can't hear the dogs barking. And I really don't care."
What Bell describes so passionately is the healing power of art
therapy, a respected field that many people associate with grave
illness or posttraumatic stress.
"I wouldn't disagree with that connection, but just like art
itself, art therapy covers a wide spectrum," says Amy Lynn, LCPC,
ATR, a licensed art therapist and spokeswoman for the American Art
Therapy Association. "To put it as simply as possible, art therapy
is about having a relationship with your visual world. So there you
are, creating, and you have no choice but to be in the present
moment. In this way, I think we're closely connected to dance and
music therapy … really any expressive therapy."
Being in the moment is key to art therapy, and as Lynn adds,
it's an incredibly healthy way to release stress. "When you're
fully in the present, your mind can't be wandering around in the
past or into the future, which really amps up anxiety."
Draw the Line
In everyday life, art therapy has nothing to do with creating a
masterpiece and everything to do with taking a mental vacation from
stressful thoughts. "The neat thing," Lynn says, "is that simply
picking up a pencil and doodling counts, because it puts you
naturally into the present moment." Whether you doodle in a proper
sketchbook or in your newspaper's margins while on the train
commuting to work, let your imagination swirl.
See the Point
A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom
Management reports that creating as well as viewing art
reduced pain and anxiety in cancer patients. If you don't feel like
physically creating art today, take a cue from science and surround
yourself with distraction-worthy, stress-reducing
art. Walk in the park and study the buds on a tree until you're
completely immersed in the present moment. Visit an art exhibit and
really see every brush stroke used to create one blossom in an
artist's vase. The trick is to let yourself be fully present in and
captivated by the moment.
Go with the Flow
When Bell becomes fully absorbed in bits of glass and tile to
create a mosaic, she's experiencing what art therapists call flow,
a near meditative state that produces many of the same benefits as
traditional meditation-like feeling less stressed. To find your
flow, Bell suggests starting with an art form that involves no
rules, software programs or mechanical equipment. "That's why I
picked mosaics. These are cracked pieces of glass I'm working with,
and there's no such thing as a mistake." Similarly, you might begin
by creating a clay pinch pot and easing yourself into the potter's
wheel, or immersing yourself into smudgy, dreamy oil pastel
abstracts before moving on to still-life oil paintings.
Color Yourself Happy
"Kids have this natural inclination to be so engaged in the
creative process without any cares about the finished product,"
says Lynn. Most adults, she adds, flip their focus to the end
result, and unless they've produced an award-winning masterpiece,
all creative joy disappears. The next time you bring home a new box
of crayons, pull up a chair and color with the kids. Follow their
lead. And when they hang their pictures on the refrigerator door,
hang yours, too!
Make It with Love
If you're drawn to crafts, Lynn is quick to note that creating
functional handmade items fits very nicely into the definition of
art therapy. "To me it's a third-wave feminism thing, with women
taking back crafts that we gave up because we didn't want to be the
homemaker-knitting or embroidering or sewing," she says. "Now we're
rediscovering how meaningful these crafts really are in life-to
create with our hands, connect to our visual world, and enjoy being
in the moment as we create."
-By Donna Shryer