Updated: Mar 6, 2020
*Please note, I am not a mental health professional. This is just my story.
Funny story. I didn't actually realize I was dealing with anxiety until well into my adult life. I didn't realize that the painful and persistent knot that appeared in my stomach when I had to do things like find parking downtown, or check the mail, or make a left hand turn at a red light was anxiety. I didn't realize that every time even the smallest conflict arose and my heart would start to hammer a mile a minute and my head felt light and I suddenly felt under water, like I was drowning and out of breath, and all I wanted to do more than anything was run away or say or do whatever I had to diffuse the situation was a form of anxiety.
In small doses, it makes sense. Small doses of anxiety keep us motivated. However, I found myself avoiding silly and trivial things that had a larger impact on my life. For example, I stopped going downtown all together. I let the mail accumulate in the mailbox until I missed important documents. I took ridiculously long, round about routes to avoid making left hand turns. My intense anxiety around any conflict at all caused a lot of issues in my personal life, most important relationships, and in my own internal life.
That's not all, though. I work a day job that demands attention to detail. It involves many moving parts. On a day-to-day basis there is quite a bit of troubleshooting involved. I'm up against at least 10 deadlines a day. I'm interacting with clients and coworkers and have to be really on every moment of the day. For someone as introverted as myself, that is A LOT. Please, keep in mind, I love a lot of what I do at work, however the daily grind can really wear.
I would come home exhausted and utterly spent. I spent my evenings feeling angry and frustrated. No matter what I tried, I couldn't break out of the habit. I just felt like a tightly wound spring all of the time ready to lose it at any moment. I was short and unfair to my loved ones. I gave so much of my best self to my work life that all that was left in the evening was, well, much less than that.
It also began to really affect my health. I was popping pain killers like candy. I fought a migraine almost every day. I was completely miserable.
I started going to therapy. Through my work in therapy, I was able to identify more clearly what I was feeling and when I was feeling it. (Eventually, I'd start to identify the why I was feeling it, but that took more time.) My therapist gave me methods for coping with the really scary feelings in the heat of the moment. For example, when I sensed a conflict arising and my body started to fly right into "fight or flight" mode, she told me to ground myself by observing my surroundings and to start naming items in the room. Such as, "There is the clock. There is the door and door knob. The lamp in that corner is on." This was extremely useful. It helped me break out of my head and calm myself. I used it successfully in several work related situations until my body wasn't ready to run away when every conversation turned to a difficult topic.
After a while, I realized I needed some other tools in my anxiety-coping toolbox. While that method worked, it also made it difficult to focus on the conversation at hand. I started incorporating some physical activity into my day-to-day routine right after work which cleared my head and my heart after the long work day and allowed me to return home with my best self in tow.
I was also encouraged to create more. Creating is naturally a zen-like experience. Most artists describe the sensation of being unaware of time passing as they lose themselves in the process of art making. I began to realize that I had stopped engaging with my art as frequently as necessary because I had been stuck in a cycle of intense anxiety, exhaustion, frustration, anger, repeat on a daily basis. I didn't feel like creating.
After working some physical activity into my routine, I had a clear enough head to start working my art making back into my schedule as well. I began getting up an hour earlier than necessary just to devote an uninterrupted block of time to making art, drawing, painting, telling stories, etc. I discovered I am naturally much more centered in the morning. It's when my head is the freshest, clearest, and I get my best ideas. However, that's not the only time I've found it useful to get lost in art making. I start pieces in the morning. I continue them throughout the day.
Here are four reasons art making helps my anxiety:
1. Breaks Negative Thought Patterns
Learning how to be kind to myself was a struggle. I used to fall into negative thought patterns that sounded something like: You're so awkward. You're worthless. No one wants to spend time with you, why would they? You barely talk. You're so quiet, they probably think you don't like them or that you're a jerk. Say something. Say SOMETHING. SAY SOMETHING!! Really? That's what you said? You're so lame. You're lazy. You're stupid. You'll never be a real artist. You're an awful sister, wife, daughter, friend.
Whatever. You name it. I said it. And worse.
When I confided in a close friend, they said, "Melissa, you would never say that to a friend. You would never say that to an acquaintance. You wouldn't even say that to a stranger. Why would you say that to yourself?"
That struck me. I worked to be kind and patient with myself. And now, when the pull is too great, when I feel those thoughts starting to spiral, I pick up my pencil or my paintbrush and get lost in whatever I'm working on. It always stops the spiral. When I finish working I feel better about myself and about what I'm working to create. Crisis averted.
2. Allows Effortless Mindfulness
Back to the zen bit mentioned above. Anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety knows that the brain is just on a constant loop, replaying ALL the things to worry about ALL the time. Quieting the mind is difficult. I've always struggled with meditation. It has never worked for me. (Likely, I just haven't been doing it correctly. lol.)
Art making, though? That turns my brain off of anything that's not related to the task at hand. I get lost in the work. I feel centered, peaceful, content. Mindful.
3. Controllable Chaos
Chaos was always my worst enemy. I am a routine lover through and through. I get up at the same time every morning. I eat the same few things for almost every meal. I plan every spare moment of my day down to the last detail. To make plans with loved ones, I must have at least 48 hours notice. Me and spontaneity go together like oil and water. If I can plan for it, I can control it, and if I can control it, then I don't have to feel anxious or sick about it.
You can understand the flaw in this, right? Haha. That being that life is uncontrollable. You cannot plan for everything. Unexpected things happen. I have always had a hard time accepting this.
Art making, for me, is a controllable chaos. I don't know exactly what I need to do to finish each work the way I want to. However, if I place my trust in my skills, instincts, and intuition, then I have faith that the piece will turn out the way I want it to. And, if it doesn't, then well, I learned something didn't I?
Cue applying that outlook to life on a broader scale.
4. Confidence Building for Experiences Outside the Studio
Practicing (through artmaking) placing trust in my skills, instincts, and intuition and having faith that everything will be alright (and if it's not, then it will have simply been a valuable life lesson) gives me the confidence to apply this to life and experiences outside of the studio.
The studio is my safe place. Practicing tough things in safe spaces makes it much easier to practice those skills in the broader world.
All this being said, I know that anxiety affects different people in many different ways and at varying degrees of intensity. These tools won't work for everyone. However, if this post helps even one person in their battle with their own anxiety, I'll be content.
Does this work for me all of the time? No, of course not. But, these tools have worked for me about 85% of the time. With my anxiety under control, my life is much more enjoyable. Of course I have bad days. Everyone does. Only now my bad days are more manageable because I have the tools I need to manage them.
If you're struggling with your mental health, I encourage you to ask for help.
“From what I've seen, it isn't so much the act of asking that paralyzes us--it's what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one. It points, fundamentally, to our separation from one another.” ― Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help