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15 May 2021 , by nniekamp

Learning to express yourself through art

My employer recently hosted a wide range of mental health related activities to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week. It was called “Expressing emotions through art” – a workshop that was absolutely non-skills-based.

As a yoga teacher, I know myself what it’s like to engage people in something that stereotypically involves a high range of extraordinary skills. When people think about yoga, they often say “I can’t do that – I am not flexible”, even though yoga has never been about being able to do full splits. Art teachers and art therapists surely encounter similar difficulties with clients and patients who might want to express themselves but don’t know how. People might react with intuitive defense saying “I can neither draw nor paint – I am not creative”.

I am not an art therapist but the subject is fascinating to me. I love the idea of expressing emotions through something as arbitrary and ambiguous as art, when emotions in and of themselves are often arbitrary and ambiguous.

You don’t have to be good

I felt very welcomed in the workshop. The facilitators tried their best to take all the pressure off by introducing an activity that was purely meant to show that we don’t have to be good at what we do in order to have fun: We had to draw a face left-handed, then we had to draw without looking and we also drew a face without lifting the pen up from the piece of paper, so that eyes, nose and mouth all sort of merged together into this one long line.

The results were… interesting! Both facilitators were very keen on showing their own mediocre pieces of art in order to lift everyone’s spirits and highlight that his workshop is not about performance. I felt accepted.

The next activity was all around diving into different types of scenarios. For example, we had to imagine that we sat at this beautiful outdoor space having a picnic. The idea was that we should imagine we would accidentally bite into a piece of lemon, while expecting the taste of an orange. I drew my little “lemon surprise” sketch and was surprised to find myself all immersed in the activity: I could feel the air on my skin, hear the birds chirping and tasted the zingy lemony taste in my mouth.

In mindfulness-based stress reduction, it is one of the classic activities to imagine the taste of a lemon while observing that the taste buds react to something that is so clearly just a thought and not a real-life stimulus. I hadn’t done this mindfulness activity in a long time and was pleasantly surprised how strong my reaction was, even though I know so well about how much the mind can influence bodily sensations. I had never drawn and sketched while being so actively involved in a thought experiment. Again, everyone’s results were absolutely average – but I could feel how this activity uplifted me after a long working day.

Self-discovery through art

There is an interesting element of self-discovery in art therapy because you often only notice what you particularly enjoy while drawing.

While outlining the picnic scenario with my pencil, I imagined what it would be like to actually picnic out in the sun. I thought about the city I live in and about how lovely it would be to see the skyline and spires of the buildings in the background. Now when I look at my sketch, I see more than a silly drawing that I fabricated in 5 minutes. I see my dream of a summerly lifestyle far away from COVID-worries and I think of a particular spot in my city that I haven’t been to in way too long. I am now longing to go back there, something that was only inspired by this short little thought experience.

I always enjoyed creative processes, but the fear of failure often keeps me at bay. But art therapy is not effective because individuals gain a sense of achievement or suddenly want to enter a career in the arts.

The mind, body and self

Research has shown that art therapy can activate multiple mechanisms involving the body, the mind, and the self. Tactile engagement and relaxed arousal can be mechanisms that engage the body, while emotion awareness, acceptance of emotion, a reflective stance, perspective taking, mentalisation and flow are components of emotion and cognition highly involved in producing art.

I very much experienced this lovely state of flow, where you kind of lose sense of space and time, being completely absorbed in the here and now while the activity performed is neither too demanding nor too simple. Art therapy can also give a sense of agency, meaning and even a deeper sense of coherence. I find this really fascinating.

Try something new

If there is one thing that I want to take away from Mental Health Awareness Week then it’s that trying out something new can be fun. When we have never done a certain type of activity beforehand, we sometimes tend to feel timid and shy, have a fear of failure or a sense of non-achievement, especially when it comes to creative tasks. But we don’t have to feel that way. We can connect with others and talk about how art makes us feel, how it feels to produce art and allow feelings and desires to come to the surface that otherwise wouldn’t have emerged.

I am going to do a little doodle each day for a week now, introducing more meaningful and non-skill-based activities to my life. Dare to be bad at something.

Image by SANE supporter, Hannah Light

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