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Feeling emotionally overwhelmed? Draw, paint, write, squeeze some Play-Doh

By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Twitter: @gordon_lp

COVID-19 ‘s sudden intrusion brought anxiety and disruption to routines. Families are thrust together for extended periods and the home is now work space for many.

Initially it was difficult to articulate what I felt about the circumstances beyond my control. I found an outlet for my emotions creating something out of a recycled protein powder bottle, old CDs, match sticks, acrylic paint, glitter glue and Kundan stones. It is called ‘Corona 19’.

I began wondering about other outlets for expression to help people cope and got a few suggestions from Psychotherapist/Art Therapist Sian MacLean.

“People of any age can start by using whatever media they choose (finger paints, acrylic, poster paints, markers, coloured pencils, gel pens) and select colours they are drawn to. Once they have done this, they can make movements with the selected medium across a blank page to create different forms, shapes and patterns,” she says.

MacLean advises self-regulation is important at this time because it can be easy to slip into feeling emotionally overwhelmed. “The repetitive movements of doing certain types of activities can help to calm and soothe the nervous system and relieve stress. Squeezing a piece of clay or Play-Doh, colouring a picture or shape, ripping coloured paper and magazines to make a collage.”

An art journal can be created by people of any age.

“It’s like a visual diary and good for recording and expressing thoughts, experiences and feelings. You can use a notebook, or sketchbook, or staple photocopy paper together”, MacLean says. Here are some ideas for making a visual diary:

  • Each entry can be different based on “where you are that day”
  • Have a selection of materials to choose from e.g. a newspaper picture or headline that evokes anger; cut it out, glue it down and scribble all over it
  • Use cards from people you love and create a collage
  • Draw somewhere that makes you feel happy or safe
  • Stick a photo of someone you love and miss who you can’t see because of the pandemic and decorate around it
  • What would your anxiety look like if it was a monster? Paint or colour your feelings

MacLean says many other suggestions and prompts can be found online.

How does art therapy help people process their emotions? It is used to help people explore their feelings and experiences; it expresses deeply felt emotions, aids in the integration of thoughts, feelings, experiences and creates self-awareness. MacLean further explains, “Themes and conflicts can be explored through self-expression and clients can gain insight into various challenges and develop strategies to cope. The process of making art can also be cathartic and help with self-regulation.”

Agreeing with other mental health professionals, MacLean states with people being home and out of their regular school or work routine, it is imperative for days to have “some type of structure”.

She adds, “This helps manage time and the types of activities you do, and ensures your life is kept in balance. Routine helps keeps the mind stimulated and the nervous system regulated”. She observes that in a time where a lot of things are out of our control, routine creates a certain amount predictability and reliability. MacLean says, “It is a good idea to schedule times for different things throughout the day, including a time for creativity”.

Art therapy is a recognised field of the mental health profession and is open to anyone.

Expressing emotions through art is not just for ‘creative’ people.

“We all have the ability to create; it’s something inherent in all of us. With art therapy it’s more about the process than what finished product looks like”. She clarifies that this form of therapy is not an art class, “the focus is not on technique but on self-expression”. There is no right or wrong because “each mark made, or piece of artwork created, is specific to the person—their personality, mood, and whatever they are experiencing at that moment”.

The goals and objectives for art therapy sessions depend on the individual and the challenges they are facing. These are identified at the start of the therapeutic process.

Intervention can be directive—therapist lead, where an activity is directed towards a theme or goal, and non-directive—client led. MacLean says, “The outcome of the therapeutic process should be based on the needs of the client for example, to express thoughts and feelings, to increase self-regulation skills, explore various conflicts, decrease anxiety and depression, develop anger management tools”.

Costs for art therapy sessions are similar in range to other types of mental health therapies. Group therapy is another option.