Sometimes you don’t want to talk and you just want to do something. Art therapy may be exactly what you need for better mental health.
I felt like dying. Really. My depression and anxiety had crippled me and I needed to see a therapist.
Therapy helps, but talking may be overrated. I have had several therapists and talking only seemed to get me to a point. This time, I needed to be more active in my therapy. No disrespect to my different therapists, but the conversations seemed to be similar:
Me: “I need to talk about my depression.”
Therapist: “Great! Let’s talk about how you feel.”
Me: “I feel sad, anxious, depressed and hopeless.”
Therapist: “How long have you felt this way.”
Me: “I have had periods where I felt like this for as long back as I can remember…”
Talking about my childhood, my family relationships and how I feel about these things has helped. Each therapist has helped me immensely, but this time I needed more than talking.
What Do You Do When Talking is Not Enough?
Depression can feel like you have an enemy living inside, a personal terrorist. Sometimes you need to talk and sometimes you need to do something. As a creative person, art therapy intrigued me. It just makes sense that therapy should involve your body, mind and emotions; and that an active therapy will offer something different than simply talking. What I learned was that art therapy can be for anyone and it does not rely on any creative ability.
How do I know that Art Therapy can be for anyone?
As soon as you and I and everyone on the planet were conscious, we reached for a block, a pen, a paintbrush, or a piece of chalk. It is natural to mess around and create. What gets in the way is the mature idea that what we create needs to look like something, needs to be acceptable, or needs to express beauty.
Some days, I can’t even look decent in the morning. So perhaps it’s a stretch to expect that everything my hands create will look together and beautiful?
What is Art?
Art is more than visual art, much more than a painting. Art happens when you make something that wasn’t there a minute ago. It is unique because you made it. There is art in joyful customer service, writing, building, cooking, music making, jewelry, moving around or dance. It is a response to the longing inside your heart to create something unique.
Does Active Therapy Really Work?
Talk therapy works. But what about therapies that get you up and doing something?
“When Neil Jacobson and his colleagues at the University of Washington conducted a thorough analysis of the effectiveness of various cognitive therapies, they found that behavioral strategies that focused on enhancing the patient’s activity level were just as successful in treating depression as the full blown cognitive-behavioral treatment package.” Dr. Kelly Lambert
Making Will Make You Better
You are born creative and you need to be an active part of your world. Let that one sink in. Life can beat you down and if not, your depression will do the job. Self-criticism, judgment and competition can make any of us put the crayons away. There is something inside that longs for the crayons, that longs to do art.
You don’t have to be a creative professional to reach for the crayons, you just need a pulse.
Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with books on algebra, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the creative bug is just a wee voice telling you, “Iʼd like my crayons back, please.” Hugh MacLeod
My 77 year old mother and my 103 year old Grandmother occupy themselves with fancy coloring books every day. Why? Not because they are professional artists, but because they have a pulse. They do something with their hands because it feels so good.
They’re only crayons. You didn’t fear them in kindergarten, why fear them now? Hugh MacLeod
I picked art therapy because something inside cried out for more than talking about my life. Reaching for the crayons helped me to reach out and take back my life. Fear and self-judgment are often what keeps you and I from creating, and too often they get in the way of living the life we want.
How Did The Art Therapy Go?
I am comfortable around paints and I like to make a mess, but at first it felt weird to be asked to cut and glue things. What does a collage have to do with depression? Plenty, it turns out.
We moved from a collage to using pastels. Then I worked with play dough, yarn and some fabric. Sometimes, all that I did was move around.
The interesting thing is that everything they use in art therapy is available in your basement. The only thing you need to add is a willingness to step out and take a risk.
Think about that one. Everything you need is available in your basement. Sometimes you need someone to help you along, like a therapist or coach. All that it takes is the willingness to try.
You Can’t Talk Your Way Into A New Life… Sometimes You Just Gotta Do Something
“When it comes to dealing with depression, it’s important to find a type of therapy that engages both your brain and your body.” Kelly Lambert, PhD
Art therapy pulled me out of my depression because each week I had a place where I could explore a little more of myself. Even if the end product didn’t look cool, I felt affirmed: Even at my worst I could make something. Creating reminded me that my life mattered.
Over the course of my art therapy I learned where I hold my emotions, I became more aware of how I breathe and I realized that sitting down and drawing can have the same effect as meditation. Turns out that my Preschool teacher was brilliant: Crayons can change the world.
Tired of Talking? Here is What You Can Do About It
- Try it on. Express yourself with whatever you have in your basement. Grab some paper and make a collage or a simple drawing. If you like to color in the lines, most major retailers sell adult coloring books for under ten bucks. Whatever you choose, you can doodle, dance around when no one is home or do some music meditation. Begin to move – get your hands, feet, body and your brain into the therapy room.
- Read Hugh MacLeod’s article “How to be Creative.” This one is beyond great. Stop, download and read. The article is about feeling more alive, whatever that is for you. I get something new every time I read it.
- Read Kelly Lambert’s book, “Lifting Depression.” Dr. Lambert talks about ‘effort driven rewards’ as a way to treat depression. It is much more than a theory. She sites how civilizations thrive when we are able to create things with our hands. Living in a sit-down-computer world, we have little opportunity to make things with our hands.
“When your hands create products… such as jewelry and art, they tap into the fascinating and unique characteristics of the human mind relating to hope, creativity, celebration, and aesthetic awareness. Hope and optimism, along with other positive emotions, signify our unique ability to plan for the future – a meaningful and rewarding future (very different from the depressed mental state) – and they provide a buffer against the onset of depression s they build emotional resilience.”
- Charlotte Walker is an award winning mental health blogger. In her piece on Busy Doing Nothing: In Praise of Purposeless Activity she outlines the importance of having unstructured time to color, do yoga, bake, walk, read, putter, clean and anything else.
- If you need to see a therapist, try a few sessions with an Art Therapist. You can find an Art Therapist in your area by clicking here: American Art Therapy Association (FindaTherapist can help you locate an Art Therapist in the US) and the Canadian Art Therapy Association.
- Bring your conversation to The Good Men Project because we know what it is like to have a conversation that no one else is having. Come on over, we are here for you.
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Photos by garry knight, r. nial bradshaw, smswaby