Creativity can be a wonderful way to support your mental health, and with everything going on in the world, it might be an especially healing and underrated mode of self-care right now. If the news cycle has you feeling stressed, hopeless, overwhelmed, angry, depressed, or any number of emotions, allowing yourself to get messy through art could be the outlet you’re looking for.
“Creativity is a wellspring, and you can always tap into it,” Leah Guzman, board-certified art therapist and author of Essential Art Therapy Exercises, tells SELF. “With guided support, such as art therapy, you can learn to cope with traumatizing events that are happening now or have happened in the past.”
To help you take your creative expression to a therapeutic level, we talked to two art therapists for a few exercises that can be done on your own to boost mental health. Before we get to those, though, let’s talk a bit more about art therapy.
What is art therapy?
There are a lot of misconceptions about art therapy, Deborah Farber, chair of the MPS Art Therapy Department of New Yorl City’s School of Visual Arts and a member of the Art Therapy Practice advisory board, tells SELF. People assume it’s only for kids, that it’s the same as taking an art class, or that it’s not “real” therapy. In reality, art therapy is often very similar to talk therapy—a space to explore psychological and emotional challenges with a therapist—but with the addition of creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring, or sculpting.
“It provides you with another form of language and helps you express the things you don’t have words for,” says Farber. “Art tells you things about yourself—unexpected things burst forth, not just in the art but in the process of creating it.”
Many people assume art therapy isn’t “for them” for a variety of reasons, with a lack of artistic skill being among chief worries. But art therapists will be quick to tell you that you needn’t worry about that. Many art therapy exercises can be done with basic supplies (or even a computer) and don’t require any skill. “The focus of art therapy is on the process of creating art, not the art product,” says Guzman. “You don’t need to be an artist, just open to having new experiences.”
While seeking out an art therapist who can guide you in the long-term is the best way to reap the benefits of art therapy, there are ways to tap into art therapy in your own life, much the way you can apply tools from talk therapy after you leave your therapist’s office. Even if you’re not interested in full-blown art therapy, art-therapy-inspired exercises still have the potential to help you relax, express your emotions, and learn new things about yourself. The following exercises are wonderful places to start.
1. Create a safe space.
Farber suggests building or drawing a physical manifestation of a safe space or a sanctuary, whatever that means to you. “Consider things like your emotional needs, physical boundaries, and things that inspire safety and comfort,” she says, noting that with her clients, she typically uses fabric, cardboard, wire, wood, and other 3D materials to make the space as physical as possible. If you don’t have the supplies you need to be that crafty, consider drawing or creating a Pinterest mood board of photos and art you find.
Art therapy exercises extend beyond creation, so make sure to engage in self-reflection during and after. “What’s going on in your body as you make it?” asks Farber. “Why do you associate safety with the colors, materials, and symbols you choose? What does your safe space defend against?”
2. Color a feeling wheel.
Even when we’re dealing with a lot of emotions, it’s not always easy to recognize them specifically. Identifying and naming a feeling is often the first step in dealing with it, so Guzman recommends a feeling wheel as an effective beginner exercise for anyone who wants to check in with themselves and become more aware of their emotions.
To do the exercise (which can also be found in Guzman’s book), start by drawing a circle and dividing it into eighths, like a pie. Then write one emotion (like sadness, rage, frustration, shock, joy, or anxiety) in each section. Lastly, using whatever materials you have available, pick a color that resonates with that feeling and fill it in.
Pay attention to: “Which feelings did you write down first? Which feelings are you currently experiencing? Did you color any two emotions the same color? If you did, what does this mean to you? Are there more positive emotions or negative ones on your feeling wheel?” writes Guzman in Essential Art Therapy Exercises.
3. Make response art.
Chances are you have a song lyric, poem, prose passage, or quote that you connect with in some way. Farber suggests choosing one and using it as a basis to create art. Respond to it however feels right, whether through scribbling with a pencil, coloring with crayons or colored pencils, or whipping out some watercolors or clay. The point is to make physical your emotional response to the words.
As you work, ask yourself, “Why did you pick the particular prompt? What do the words bring up for you? How do you feel as you create the art? What are you trying to capture?” says Farber.
4. Get into some craft-ivism.
There is a long history of people using crafted handmade objects—such as quilting and embroidery—as a way to advocate for positive change, to protest, and to express their values. Since community, advocacy, and connecting with meaning are so often good for mental health and self-care, Farber suggests an exercise based in craftivism for healing, especially during these times. “By slowly working through a craft, it allows us to slow down and think about what matters to us,” she says.
Farber suggests starting simple, perhaps making a small pillow by sewing two pieces of felt together with some filling and hand-stitching a message of your choice onto it. “As you choose your words carefully, think about what you stand for,” says Farber. “What matters to you, and how can you express it right now? Make it a declaration.”
Beyond sewing and embroidery, there are many ways to mix art therapy and activism (making a really beautiful protest sign, for example). To take a deeper dive into this gentle form of activism, check out Craftivism: The Art and Craft of Activism, edited by Betsy Greer, or read these ideas for craftivism action to support the Black Lives Matter movement by the Craftivist Collective.
5. Use a nature walk as inspiration.
Incorporating nature into your art therapy practice is pretty much a two-for-one deal. Farber suggests going for a walk (safely with a mask and keeping distanced from others!) and collecting things you find that are interesting to you. That could be leaves, sticks, pine cones, rocks, or other found objects. When you return home, use your bounty to create a sculpture or an altar while concentrating on your senses. What does each material feel like? What drew you to it?
If you’d like to stick to more digital art therapy, Guzman recommends taking a nature photo walk, which you can do in her book or even by poking around on the internet. Instead of collecting materials to make something, create art as you go by taking or saving pictures of anything that is beautiful to you or evokes an emotion. As you do, pay attention to what comes up and consider what you’d name each photo. Then do whatever comes naturally with the photos, whether that’s pulling them up when you need a moment of calm or printing them out to create a lush collage that helps bring the outdoors into your home.