Relieve Stress and Anxiety By Creating Art

woman painting circular canvases with varying shapes and colors.
Woman making abstract circular paintings in primary colors. F. Roy Kemp/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What can one do to help alleviate stress and anxiety? If you’re an artist, keep creating art, for one.  Even if you’ve never considered yourself an artist, now is the time to take up an artistic pursuit like drawing or painting. It is never too late, and everyone can do it. If you can hold a brush or crayon or marker, you can draw and paint. And it doesn’t have to be a big investment - a few acrylic paints, or a set of watercolor paints, brush, markers or crayons, and paper are all you need, along with some old magazines, a glue stick, and scissors for collage, if you'd like.

You will be greatly rewarded emotionally, physically, and spiritually for your creative efforts. As Pablo Picasso once said, "Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life."

Benefits of Being Creative and Making Art

Art has been in existence since the dawn of humankind. Using the elements of art and design - line, shape, color, value, texture, form, and space  - to make meaning out of life and express a personal vision is an innate impulse. Children do it as soon as they have the fine motor skills necessary to hold a crayon. Through this impulse artists express the joys, sadnesses, traumas, fears, triumphs, beauty, and ugliness of life. Artists are truth tellers. That is why artists are often perceived as a threat and the first to be censored during times of war and strife.  

But being authentic and telling the truth is transformative, both for individuals and groups, and that is the medicinal power of art.

Creating art is healing not only for the mind and spirit, but also the body, since all are interconnected. It works on multiple levels to not only relax, but also to restore and rejuvenate, bringing joy and increasing your energy and enthusiasm for life. 

As Shawn McNiff writes in Art Heals: How Creativity Cures the Soul (Buy from Amazon), " ...healing through art is one of the oldest cultural practices in every region of the world," and "Art adapts to every conceivable problem and lends its transformative, insightful, and experience-heightening powers to people in need." (1) 

Many studies have shown the therapeutic benefits of making art. It is a meditative practice, putting you in “the zone”, with many of the same benefits of meditation, helping you to take your mind off of daily struggles and issues, lowering your blood pressure, pulse rate and breathing rate, and making you mindful of the present moment.

Making art allows you to play, giving you the freedom to explore and experiment with new techniques, materials, and methods, while also helping to stimulate new brain synapses. An article in Scientific American reports that one of the ways to increase your intelligence is to seek novelty. "When you seek novelty, several things are going on. First of all, you are creating new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections—learning is taking place." (2)

Making art enables you to feel and express gratitude by helping you to observe and see beauty where others may not. It also gives you an outlet for expressing some of your anger and frustration, as well as your personal political and world views. 

Art can help you discern feelings and express thoughts that are difficult to articulate.

Engaging with the arts and creating something is a way of engaging with and being in relationship with yourself, helping you to know yourself better. The process of creating art opens channels of communication beyond those of the purely verbal, dissolving barriers caused by words or our own internal censors, helping us to see ourselves, and others, more fully and clearly. In so doing it connects us more deeply to ourselves and to each other. If you are working in class with other people the atmosphere becomes one in which there is a mutual give and take of ideas, and a spirit of generosity.  The creative process helps to create new relationships and foster existing ones in a positive productive environment. 

While art therapy is a distinct field and art therapists are trained and educated in both art and psychology, you don't have to consult a licensed art therapist to reap the benefits of making art, for it is not about the product, it's about the process, and you are the best judge of how the process is affecting you.

Although the process is of primary importance, the finished product is a visual reminder of the process and the lessons learned, and can stimulate your mind and soul anew each time you view it.

Things You Can Do Now to Start Relieving Stress

If you don't know how to begin, here are some ideas and resources for ways you can start to create art. You will find that once you start, your creative energies will be unleashed and one idea will lead to the next or even several others! That is the beauty of creativity - it grows exponentially! If you can set aside at least a desk or small area with your art supplies where you can be creative, that will help enormously.

Tip: Play music that energizes or soothes you. Music is a wonderful accompaniment to making art.

  • Playing and experimenting with color. Without thinking about it, choose colors that appeal to you and start painting them. Or tear them out of magazines and glue them down, combining them with paint. Don't think too much about their shapes or making anything recognizable - just enjoy the colors.  You might want to do this as a formal color exercise, making a series of 5"x7" cards - one with blues, one with reds, yellows, secondary colors, then tertiary colors - all the colors of the 12-hue color wheel. Then make cards using analogous colors, complementary colors, limited color palettes, etc.  Work on heavy watercolor paper or card stock so you don't have to worry about tearing the paper. The act of concentrating on the colors alone and determining color combinations will give you something to focus on other than the stresses of your daily life. 
  • Keep a visual gratitude journal. It can consist of  photographs, drawings, paintings, collage, or images you cut out from magazines or newspapers - anything for which you are grateful and to which you can return, reminding yourself of the joys of living. 
  • Keep a daily sketchbook or visual journal.  Doing so will keep you living in the moment, alert to the sights around you, and ready to record fleeting thoughts and ideas.  Read Tips for Keeping a Sketchbook or Visual Journal.
  • Do a small painting a day. Spend an hour or so doing a small painting. There are so many good reasons to do this: you improve quickly, you can try new things without fear of ruining something you've spent a long time on; you feel a sense of accomplishment every day; it relieves stress. Read Carole Marine's book, Daily Painting: Paint Small and Often to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Artist (Buy from Amazon) for more inspiration.
  • Start drawing shapes. Draw freehand circles of all sizes, overlapping and concentric. Then color them in. Do the same thing for squares, and triangles. Then combine shapes. 
  • Paint or draw your mood. Every mark conveys energy. How are you feeling? What kind of energy do you have? What kind of mark will you make to express that energy? A short dark mark, or a long flowing mark? What kind of shape are you feeling? Jagged shapes with sharp edges, or rounded curvilinear shapes?
  • Make a spirit or soul collage. On a standard size of cardboard or matte board (4"x 6" or 5"x 7"), make collages from images and words that speak to you. Don't plan in advance what you want to do, but let the image come forth organically. These collages can reveal much about your subconscious feelings and desires. 
  • Practice Seeing/Drawing. This is a kind of meditative drawing called blind contour drawing in which you draw very slowly while looking at what you are drawing rather than at the surface you are drawing on. It slows down time and makes you truly see the uniqueness of the thing you are drawing.
  • Try coloring. Take a cue from the children in your life and get an adult coloring book. You don't have to face a blank page, all you have to do is start coloring and feel the stress melt away.
  • Join an art class, or get some friends together to make art. While you can do all of the above alone, it can be even more beneficial to get together with other people, helping to create connections that will serve you well next time you feel stress and could use a friend.

Further Reading and Viewing

How to Paint Abstractly

Creativity Exercises for Artists

How to Begin Painting

What is the Purpose of Making Art?

Promoting Peace Through Art

Painting and Grief

Coping With Stress Through Art Therapy (video)

How Does Art Therapy Heal the Soul? | The Science of Happiness (video)

Art Therapy: Relieve Stress by Being Creative  

Art Therapy and Stress Relief  (how-to article and video) 

Art and Healing: Using Expressive Art to Heal Your Body, Mind, and Spirit (Buy from Amazon)

Painting Your Way Out of a Corner: The Art of Getting Unstuck (Buy from Amazon)

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REFERENCES

1. McNiff, Shaun, Art Heals: How Creativity Cures the Soul, Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA, p. 5

2. Kuszewski, Andrea, You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential, Scientific American, March 7, 2011, accessed 11/14/16