If you've ever found yourself doodling during tense or nerve-wracking moments, you've already experienced the effectiveness of art therapy. Creating art gives people an outlet for self-expression and improves their quality of life, and for people who struggle with anxiety and other mental health challenges, art therapy is often one of the treatment options that doctors recommend.
Art therapists are licensed professionals who are trained to help people with social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorders and other mental health struggles heal through creativity. Even if you can't have a session with a local art therapist, you can experience the benefits of art-making on your own. While creating expressive art is no substitute for cognitive behavioral therapy and/or other professional mental health treatment, art therapy exercises can sometimes provide immediate relief when you're struggling with anxiety.
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1. Make a Mind Map
Mind maps are common art therapy exercises. Creating a mind map is a way of processing your feelings and engaging in art-making at the same time. Choose one or more central words to put in the middle of the map and create branches to add more related thoughts as they come to you. When you're experiencing anxiety symptoms, you might create a mind map with the word "anxiety" at the center and try to map out all the thoughts that are affecting your well-being at the moment. Use markers, paint, colored pencils or whatever tools you want and feel free to illustrate the map.
2. Sculpt Some Clay
Digging your fingers into clay can be deeply soothing when you're anxious. Squishing and shaping the cool, wet clay is grounding, and you don't need to have any natural artistic talent to enjoy clay modeling. Sculpting can be almost meditative, giving your hands something to do but allowing your mind to empty. Buy molding clay from an art store to use for freeform sculpting or pick up a beginner's pottery wheel so you can experiment with spinning pots.
3. Finger Paint With Your Inner Child
It's really a shame that we tend to grow out of the finger painting stage by elementary school. Like working with clay, getting your hands dirty with paint provides a sensory experience that some people may find soothing. Painting with your fingers or your entire hand lets you engage your body in making visual art in a way that painting with a brush doesn't. Mixing colors with your fingers is also more fun than mixing them with a brush.
4. Design Your Own Coloring Pages
There are a ton of coloring books on the market, including many designed specifically for adults dealing with anxiety, and it's easy to understand why. Coloring a pleasant scene with crayons or colored pencils can be useful for emotion regulation. It's hard to feel stressed for long when you're focused on staying inside the lines. Instead of buying coloring books or printing out coloring sheets, make your own using a fine-tipped black marker. Draw bubble letters or geometric patterns if you don't want to draw figures. Even a series of overlapping circles can make for a satisfying coloring sheet.
5. Do Some Art Journaling
Writing in a journal can feel really challenging. It might feel easier to create therapeutic art journal entries instead. Grab pastels, colored pencils or even watercolors. Open a journal to a fresh page and see what comes out of you. There are no rules for art journaling, so you can write about your day or draw unicorns or do whatever helps you ease your anxiety. If you're struggling to express yourself through drawing or painting, cut out images from magazines or other papers around you to create miniature collages in your journal.
6. Make a Mandala
In simple terms, a mandala is a symbol that has great significance in many cultures. It's circular and configured from geometric shapes. Other than those requirements, creating mandalas is like cutting out paper snowflakes: It's totally up to you how you create the pattern. Start with a small circle or flower in the center of the page and add layers using whatever design you feel like using. It's a meditative exercise that can help you zone out completely or give you something on which to focus during a period of deep rumination.
7. Build Paper Flowers
Surrounding yourself with beautiful things can be comforting in difficult times. Making giant paper flowers is a pleasant kind of art therapy exercise, and you can proudly display the results on a table or in a vase when you're finished. Experiment with different color combinations and different flower styles to create a bouquet that will never shrivel up and die. Prepare for a little self-esteem boost when you see what you can do with paper.
8. Weave With Yarn
For some people, the creative process works better with textiles than with paint and paper. Many art therapy activities use yarn and weaving, at least in part because the repetitive nature of weaving can be comforting during a period of anxiety. Make easy woven wall hangings using a frame loom or make your own basic loom from cardboard to practice a basic weaving technique.
9. Make Plant Art
Even you're not into gardening, you can probably see why so many people find working with plants therapeutic. Focusing on a beautiful flower, tree or potted plant may help pull you out of the spiraling or racing thoughts that often accompany anxiety, and there are a lot of ways to use your art materials to do it. Sketch your houseplants or a tree in your yard. Make crayon rubbings of fallen leaves. Pick flowers, pull apart the petals and use them to make a mosaic design on paper.
10. Build a Self-Care Box
If anxiety symptoms are affecting you today, you can assume they'll affect you again someday in the future. Make a project out of creating a self-care box that you can grab anytime you need a mental health boost or in case of panic attacks. Find an old wooden or sturdy cardboard box to decorate with paint, glued-on gems, decoupaged pictures or whatever else you want to use. Fill the box with things that give you comfort, like a soothing scented spray and a book of affirmations.