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  • Paola Scharberg

Creating to Cope: Art Therapy in the age of Anxiety

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” - Pablo Picasso -

The past three months have been a strange time for most of us. For those of us who used to spend most of their time out, it has been especially difficult. The changes Covid-19 brought have radically transformed our lives. We all cope with difficult situations in different ways. Making more trips to the pantry or to the fridge are some ways to cope, but what if we can deal with the uncertainty in a healthier and more creative way?

The pandemic has caused many of us to experience more stress and anxiety, intensifying feelings of uncertainty and despair. Trouble sleeping, changes in eating patterns, and an increase use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances are common behaviors when dealing with difficult situations. How do we deal with a new situation that we never prepared for?

There are a lot of situations in life that even though they are new, we were preparing for them on some level, like the birth of a child or the death of a family member, but not a pandemic. No one ever told us how to prepare for a pandemic.

I have always enjoyed art, going to art museum were a regular part of my life before Covid. Making art has been a part of my life for many years as well. Making art was always fun, and it still is, but now it’s also therapy. Creating during the pandemic is allowing me to experience the creative process in a healing way, a way that I had never experienced before. For the last several months, I’ve been collaging; the process of searching for images from old magazines and cutting them, either precisely with an X-Acto knife or simply tearing them, is a reflection process. My creations often mirror abstract feelings and thoughts that are either difficult to express in words or I have no desire to do so. When I’m done collaging for the day, I often realize I spent four or five hours without thinking about the pandemic, or wonder about when I’ll be able to see my family again, or if my job will lay me off. The creative process takes over the overwhelming thoughts that go along with a pandemic.

It is important to keep in mind that when creating for the purpose of coping, "it's the process, not the product," says Megan Carleton is an art therapist at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She explains how the skill level is of no significance and anyone can use art to deal with anxiety and stress. Art making has many cognitive effects. A study published in 2014 in PLOS ONE, a peer reviewed journal of science, states “visual art interventions have stabilizing effects on the individual by reducing distress, increasing self-reflection and self-awareness, altering behavior and thinking patterns, and also by normalizing heart rate, blood pressure, or even cortisol levels.”

When you create art, you immerse yourself in a different world, a world of textures, shapes, sounds, and colors. Depending on what medium you are using, certain senses will be more heightened than others. Sculpting will provide a different feeling than drawing or painting. Coloring will be different than writing or playing an instrument. Regardless of what the medium is, when we create, we lose ourselves in the process and time passes faster. It’s a meditative process, a process where the subconscious manifests itself through pencil lines, carvings, or musical notes.

Art therapy is a profession that combines mental health and human services to better the lives of individuals, families, and communities. This is achieved through the creative process, art-making, applied psychological theory, and human experience with an art therapist. Art therapy is used in patients with cancer, dementia, and chronic pain. A study done at Penn’s department of radiation and oncology with caregivers suggested that “creative activities like art-making are mindful practices, allowing patients and caregivers to stay in the moment, which by definition can free them from the stress that cancer brings.” But you don’t have to be a cancer patient or caregiver to reap the benefits of creativity. Spending time creating can improve one’s well-being and increase happiness as well as relationships.

Creating art reduces stress levels and promotes relaxation. Coloring, for example, can reduce stress and anxiety, and increase pleasure and enjoyment. Carleton states, “Once people engage, they often realize they are having fun and the time passes faster." She also explains how art making can have a crucial role in helping people deal with difficult times, including dealing with the end of life.

Social isolation is causing many people to experience loneliness and depression. Many children who are hospitalized and unable to have normal visitations are working with art therapists. Art is helping the children deal with these feelings of anxiety, build coping skills, and promote relaxation. This is creating an outlet for them to express what they are feeling.

Most of us can do this and get the same benefits, you don’t have to be an artist, or even an art enthusiast. It only takes some simple supplies like pencil, paper, cardboard, crayons, markers, scissors, glue, or textiles. The possibilities are endless when it come to creating and it’s important to keep in mind that what matters is the process and not the result.


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