Art Heals: Express Yourself and Reduce Stress with Art
by Debbie Lyn Toomey
Ever have a terrifying nightmare from childhood that sneaks up on you?
Similar to the usual “falling” dream that some people have, I have one that I call the “Tidal Wave” dream and it happened last weekend. Thanks to art, I was able to rise above the lingering feelings of dread. By drawing and coloring, I literally “drew” out the feelings of uncertainty that stayed with me all morning long.
I hadn’t had this type of nightmare in a long time. I was confused as to why it occurred again. Frankly, I thought I was over that type of dream a long time ago! The last time I had the “Tidal Wave” dream I woke up happy! I was so proud of myself because, instead of being swallowed up by the Statue of Liberty size wave, I was riding the wave with a big smile on my face boldly going where ever it took me.
I woke up feeling transformed. That was about 5 years ago when I started to feel more confident and clear about my life’s work (the big “W” work/life purpose one). That was around the time when I started my company Ultimate Healing Journey, LLC, a company focused on motivating and coaching today’s busy people with happiness and mindfulness skills to fuel their success. It was an exciting time!
Why did the wave dream came back? That dream first occurred when I was much younger; when I didn’t feel strong or sure of myself. Back then, this tsunami size wave would come out of nowhere and swallow me up causing me to gasp for air and fight for my life. I hated that sinking feeling of fright that always stayed with me for days. Although, the Tidal Wave in my recent dream disappeared way before it got to me (thank God!), it still shook me up.
I thought I was done with this dream! I wondered what could have brought it on. At breakfast, I told me family about it. I always encouraged my family to share their nightmares because I feel it was a good way to chase the nightmares away. In other words, the dark always disappears in the light.
After breakfast, my family and I took advantage of an unusually dry and cool August morning and went for a walk down along the Neponset River. The nice day and the cool breeze made it a great day for boaters and fishermen to be out on the relaxing waters. It was such a beautiful scene to watch. I really enjoyed that walk.
Later that day, I found myself sitting at my desk with a blank white piece of paper and a pencil. I decided to draw. The image I started with was the Tidal Wave. It took up 95% of my paper! At the bottom of the page was a tiny stick figure of me as if looking up at the gigantic body of water. I was taken aback when I saw it right in front of me. As I colored this all-consuming wave with my light blue colored marker my breathing soon became fast and shallow. It brought up feelings of frustration and powerlessness and of being overwhelmed! It was strange (and interesting) how my kindergarten looking drawing reflected how I’ve been feeling for the last few weeks.
The last few weeks have been tiring and tough for me. I did my best to stay afloat of what was going on. I had self-imposed stress such as creating the coloring book companion for my book and trying to get my mindfulness study approved. I also had other stressors that were beyond my control which included dealing with a strange water leak that happened on my birthday and having to go without my car for 2 weeks, helping my 79-year-old mother after having total knee replacement surgery, coping with the fact that my oldest son was ready to move out of our house, and helping my nervous 12-year-old son get excited for his week-long boy scout camping.
Thank goodness it wasn’t a typically month for me. Despite my self-care routine of yoga, mindfulness meditation, and gratitude practice, I still felt down and depressed. I hadn’t felt like this in a long time. This became clear as I looked at my finished drawing.
I decided to draw the image that I saw during my morning walk. On a separate piece of white paper, I drew the river and the boats that were on the water. I found peace in that piece. I outlined the bench that my husband and I sat on and added the shrubs and flowers that were at the river’s edge. As I colored, a deep and soothing breath filled my lungs. It made me smile. Although, my art work was far from being a Renoir filled with pastels and pretty color, it was a relaxing work of art! I noticed my breathing change. It was slower and deeper. There was nothing stressful about my drawing. Then, I took another step.
I compared both pictures. I noticed how different they were and how they made me feel. Then, I wrote down on one side of the Tidal Wave picture how the image made me feel. I wrote down my stressors and what caused me sadness. As I listed them, I was surprised at how many I had. The more I wrote, the more my head nodded with agreement.
I did the same thing with my other drawing. In that one, I wrote down how it made me feel. I wrote that I wanted to have balance, fun, and time to relax and be with my family. Then, I wrote down I how I would like to feel. A couple of ideas came to mind. One was to simplify and slow down my calendar. I created a schedule that included activities and projects that I needed and wanted to do. I made sure I allowed for extra time to rest and have fun. Another idea was to invite my parents over for a homemade pizza dinner so we can see each other and catch up.
These two drawings were such an eye opener for me. While they were opposites, they gave me an important insight into my internal and downward turbulence. This visual expressive exercise healed me! It freed up so much of what I was feeling in such an innocent and tangible way. I highly recommend this exercise to anyone who is feeling stressed. While a nightmare was the motivator behind my experience, you can start doing this now to determine how you are feeling.
Allow art to heal you from your pain and reduce your stress. All you have to do is express yourself. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art is a form of therapy that helps people “explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” Don’t let the simplicity of this practice fool you. Art heals and you don’t have to have any artistic talent for it to help you. Any expressive medium can help you such as clay, paint, wood, music, dance, photography, etc.
There are many studies that show the beneficial effects of art for healing, stress reduction, and personal growth. Art as form of therapy has helped people with ADD/ADHD, Autism Spectrum, Age management, Abuse, PTSD, Cancer, and so much more. Art as a form of therapy is found in many settings such as: hospitals, wellness studios, schools, and home. While it is becoming more widely used, it is always recommended for people with mental health problems to seek professional advice before undergoing any sort of treatment.
For those of you who are not under the supervision and care of mental health professionals, there are simple ways to get started. Here’s how you can express yourself and reduce your stress with art.
1. Choose: Pick the expressive art medium that you like and start creating. Allow the medium to move you.
2. Compare: Do a comparison. Have a before and after version of how you are feeling. It could be a past vs. present or bad vs. good version.
3. Clarity: Accept the different feelings that come up and view them with no judgement. This will help you to avoid clouding your mind with any self-limiting or more negative thoughts.
4. Control: Notice how much a sense of calm, control and confidence comes to you with this exercise.
5. Create: Be creative in how you do this practice. Make this practice your own.
Go forth and express yourself through art. You will be surprise at just how much better you will feel afterwards. A great way to get started is by coloring and to help you along, The Happiness Result Art Therapy Coloring book will be available to you by the end of the summer. Coloring books have been proven to calm the mind and reduce stress. It’s a great way to combine art with mindfulness. To learn more about its companion book, The Happiness Result. More time, More health, More love, More success go to www.TheHappinessResult.com.
Master trainer and coach Patrick Howell and I are going to be offering an introductory online course on this topic soon. Please stay tuned for more information on this unique and fascinating art therapy class.