By journeying alongside her anxiety, this art therapist discovered she was an artist … through embodied art-making.
I remember using art as a teenager, to cope with life’s challenges and since then, I’ve always made art at some point – but never in a dedicated way. I told myself I wasn’t “good enough” to be an artist, so it made sense to become an art therapist and share my passion with others. As I turned my attention to teaching others to make art, I kind of forgot about making my own. I guess the desire got buried underneath all the other distractions.
On the never-ending quest for answers about myself, I diverted from my practice as an art therapist and became interested in feminine embodiment. For a year, it became a daily and devoted ritual for me as I completed Jenna Ward‘s Feminine Embodiment certification.
Feminine Embodiment is the practice of tuning into the body and coming into contact with the sensations residing beneath the surface. Rather than tuning out from the body, ignoring, or suppressing feelings, it is about giving attention to these sensations. Embodiment practice takes it to the next level by encouraging movement, breath or sound to further move the sensations through the body, rather than have them ‘stuck’ in the body. Stuck emotions become tension that builds over the years and causes dis-ease until we do something to move it.
Over the course of eighteen months I had cultivated a much healthier relationship with my body and I was becoming accustomed to finding pleasant sensations more often than not. For the first time in my life, I felt maybe I had finally reached an authentic ‘okay’ place.
But then – out of nowhere – came panic attacks, a form of anxiety I had learnt about during my studies. The most unpleasant sensation would wash over my entire body and at first, I felt as though I was about to die. Uninvited and out of nowhere, I spent three months in full body fear. A stark contrast to my previous year, I was now deeply afraid of what I was feeling.
Anxiety, in transpersonal art therapy (the paradigm in which I am trained), is seen as deeply suppressed material that is forcing its way up and out. Insisting on attention and demanding that we notice what we have been ignoring. Some would say its your soul calling for you to listen to a deeply hidden desire – ‘to do what you came here to do’. This material can be so efficiently hidden from us, we have no awareness of it. We may feel we are going along just fine and have no idea what these panic attacks or anxiety are all about.
In my case, I had done so much personal development work through all of my training, I really was convinced there couldn’t possibly be anything more that I needed to know! I really struggled to understand what my body was trying to communicate to me. Meanwhile, I found myself unable to do simple household tasks, unable to be at home alone and almost unable to drive. There was only one thing I could do… art.
I felt a strong urge to be immersed in creativity. So out came my chalk pastels and acrylic paints, normally stored away between workshops, and I started making art. I noticed in my body immediately, an instant and lasting calm. As time went on I also noticed my feelings were lighter, I felt uplifted, cheerful and unburdened. My chest didn’t feel tight and I didn’t feel as afraid of the possibility of a panic attack.
I played with the materials outside under a tree, sitting on the grass, imagining the grounding energy of the earth helping me. I used the kitchen table, the floor in the living room, I even spread a towel over my bed and did some chalk drawings before sleep, knowing it would calm me. I followed my urge to create in any way I could.
Art is medicine for anxiety. There’s plenty of information out there about how art making calms the nervous system, slows the heart rate and changes brain waves in the same way meditation and mindfulness practices do. It results in a release of calming hormones which help to decrease the levels of cortisol (our stress hormone) that is chronically high in most of us these days, particularly women. Art making is a no brainer for anxiety. But it really hit me, just how profoundly calming it was when I was right in the midst of ongoing, full body, anxiety. The change was instant and palpable.
Art making is embodiment. Being creative and noticing the instant calm sensations really is another version of embodiment. Feeling what you’re feeling, working through this by putting marks on the paper or canvas and coming to notice a release of what you were feeling… is embodiment. It doesn’t only have to be movement – tension can be released through art making as well. I thought a lot about just how essential this form of embodiment is for women. It’s in our wiring – to create. Whether you have a physical womb or not, if you are a woman, you are designed to create. And we feel better when we do.
The added bonus of art making is that you get visual feedback as well as bodily. The images or creations you make are a collection of symbols from within… much like dreams. They can be interpreted through your body using your intuition – your deep knowing – to receive insight and wisdom. To gain a deeper and different perspective that ultimately leads to knowing yourself better. All this occurs through the simple act of making marks on paper, creating a sculpture from natural items or playing with clay – you don’t have to be an artist or create a masterpiece!
The key here is, you get to communicate directly with your soul self (your deep, feminine, feeling self) and when she is truly heard, the anxiety starts to fall away. When you hear (and listen to) your soul self, there is no suppressed material to force out and you take one step closer to your soul purpose. No need for drastic measures, no throwing your life-as-you-know-it out the door overnight. The messages from within are always gentle and supportive of your growth.
Results… I’m into my fourth month of consistent, creating now. I still experience occasional anxiety but I am no longer taken over by uninvited panic attacks. Art making has given me so much over the years, but in the last four months it has truly taken me to new levels of self understanding. Rarely a day goes by where I miss some form of creativity time. If you also suffer from anxiety or depression, art making is a profound ‘tool’ to have in your toolkit.
The Art of Anxiety is a theme I am further exploring in an exhibition coming up in June, because.. I am good enough! I am sharing the limelight with my amazing clients and I am truly excited to share this experience with them and with the community. I want to really showcase how art making is so much more than producing a pleasing image to hang on a gallery wall (even though, of course, that is also quite an achievement). It is the act of journeying with your soul. If you would like to witness and celebrate our journeys, please join us! (See details here) Or submit your comments or art making pics below!