Using Art to Move Through Stress

Let’s face it, stress is synonymous with living in the modern world. With fast-paced lives and increasing demands, stress causes the psychological feeling of pressure from the outside world. Stress can be challenging in many ways but it is also the result of living a full and exciting life, saying yes to opportunities, having relationships, and simply being engaged in the world. When stress levels reach an intolerable level, art therapy is one way to bring you back to a peaceful place.

Stress Is a Condition – Not an Illness.

 The stress response is exactly that – a response. It is a completely natural coping mechanism designed to help you react to external situations that require immediate action in order to keep you safe. Short-term stress is actually quite productive and has been shown to mobilize your resources and actually enable you to thrive as you respond to the challenges around you. However, complications arise when the stress response becomes on-going, setting the body up to a ‘new’ normal, and leaving you more vulnerable to a wide variety of both physical and mental health issues ranging from anxiety, infections, insomnia to more serious illnesses such as depression or burnout. While individual responses to stress vary considerably, there are consequences to living a life in continual overdrive.

The effects of stress become pathological when your inner resources are insufficient, blocked or you are just too tired to effectively respond to the challenges you are confronted with. The stress becomes bigger than YOU.

So What Can Art Therapy Do?art-therapy

Help You Say YES to the Moment:

Continuous rumination about the past or worrying about the future is the cause of the majority of stress. It may seem counterintuitive to someone who currently lives with a lot of stress in their lives, also while the instinct or habitual coping style is to want to run away from it all. Anxiety feeds on an overactive mind. Studies have shown that by shifting attention to the present moment, to the body and the senses, it can actually help you let go of anxious thoughts.

Making art forces you to pay attention to your senses and, as a result, quiet the noisy mind. Recent studies have shown a decrease in cortisone levels (the hormone stimulated by stress) after a 45-minute art-making session, even if participants were not familiar with how to do art.

Giving Shape to the Unknown Predator:

There is nothing worse than the feeling of having monsters that are hiding out in your closet, feeling afraid of something that you can’t even name or see. Stress can sometimes take on an amorphous, invisible presence, like an unwelcome and relentless intruder that simply just won’t go away. In art therapy, you can literally create a tangible image of what your stress looks like. Externalizing the feeling on a piece of paper or through a sculpture makes it visible, manageable, and, more importantly, easier to then take action to implement change.

Understand the Relationship:

The Oxford dictionary defines stress as “the external force exerted on a body that tends to strain or deform its shape”. Too much unchecked or unacknowledged stress will ultimately “distort” your shape. You begin to take on a different personality with behaviours that are based on coping mechanisms dealing with the stress. Over time, this can contribute to your loss of identity and your sense of self in the world. You become your stress monster and stop being you.

In art therapy sessions, we explore the relationship between you and your stress, noticing how you relate to it. Creating your own personal “stress monster” can be a playful and engaging way to explore and understand your own stress responses, as well as give you further tools and possibilities on how to respond.

Help You MOVE:

Let’s face it, sometimes stress is beyond your control and you must stay in a difficult or unpleasant situation because you simply have to. The rhythmic and repetitive movements in art making is a way to allow you to have an emotional release, without necessarily having to talk about your feelings.

Pick up a pencil, grab a sheet of paper, and simply begin to scribble for the next 5 minutes. Scribbling is an activity that anyone of any age group can do. It is a wonderful way to release emotions, calm the mind, and simply take a little time out. Often a cathartic experience can allow you to release your own tension, and leave your energy more freed up to better deal with the stress on hand.

While there are many art-based activities that do reduce the feeling of stress, sometimes having a consultation with a professional art therapist can help you further understand what you are going through in order to create a more lasting change.

By Esther Kalaba, M.A. Art Therapist, Montréal Therapy Centre