The Ultimate Guide to Art Therapy for Students

There’s no one perfect way to deal with stress and anxiety. Anxiety brings out the worst in us — the thoughts that suffocate, the feelings that we’d rather never feel, and the actions that we always regret. It’s a severe burden to bear.

Anxiety and stress go hand in hand. Like two scorned lovers, they affect each other in the worst possible way. They amplify each other, leaving us to either sink or swim in our own despair. And it’s so easy to let go, to give yourself in to those dark, depressing, and obsessive thoughts that usually follow stress-induced anxiety. It’s a slippery slope — when we give in to our anxious thoughts, when we leave them to brew unattended, the consequences can be quite severe.

The most challenging step in dealing with anxiety and stress is seeking help. Once we do, everything feels just a bit lighter. However, finding the right type of support can be a real hassle as well. Therapy is such a broad term. Most of us envision endless talking, using your therapists as a sounding board until there’s nothing else left to be said, and until we hit a magical breakthrough. But, what if we have difficulties expressing ourselves — if we’ve always been more visual than verbal creatures? Well, then, art therapy might be the perfect solution.

When we say art therapy, we don’t mean doodle your scary thoughts away. Art therapy is a legitimate technique. It utilizes the visual expression and uses it as a primary form of communication.

While some may think that drawing won’t help solve their problems, art therapy uses creative expression to clear the path to self-healing and foster healthier ways of thinking. There’s a lot of misconception that follows art therapy. Thanks to the twisted portray in the popular media, art therapy is primarily seen as a tool that might help therapists diagnose small children with severe traumas.

However, art therapy isn’t a diagnostic tool. A therapist won’t look at your drawing and tell you that you have bipolar disorder. That’s not how therapy works.

Art therapy is a means of expression. It’s a tool that we use to address, communicate, and work through stress, feelings, issues, or problems that we can’t or won’t voice out loud. What’s more, art therapy can also help us manage behavior and even get in touch with various aspects of our personalities — learn to accept and love ourselves.

The beauty of art therapy is that it works for anyone. Your artistic skill, age, gender, or issues don’t matter. It utilizes different techniques and uses them to better both the expression and the overall state of mental health.

The whole point of art therapy is to express and work through various issues. Because it doesn’t rely on the person’s capabilities to properly articulate what ails them, art therapy is suitable for everyone. However, it can be particularly useful for:

● social and behavioral problems in children
● learning disabilities in both children and adults
● stress-induced anxiety or OCD
● brain-injury induced difficulties or mental health issues
● post-traumatic therapy
● treatment of children and adults with autism

These are just some of the situations where art therapy might be the perfect conduit of expression. However, although useful for many, art therapy might be the ideal way to deal with anxiety and stress in early adulthood.

Art therapy forces us to focus on the internal. The delivery doesn’t matter — it can be a drawing, a collage, a sculpture, a photograph — anything. It’s the idea behind the artwork that truly matters. In other words, unlike an art class, we won’t be urged to draw a bowl of fruit but how the bowl makes us feel, what it makes us think, what ideas in us the bowl awakened.

Of course, we won’t be drawing bowls of fruit. But the analogy still stands — the outside world isn’t as crucial as our perception of it.

Art therapy relies on metaphor and introspection. It allows us to communicate our anxious feelings in a different way. However, it also gives us something else to focus on — a task that will defuse the stress. Art therapy can:

● Defuse tension
● Be an alternate mode of communication
● Act as a cognitive distraction
● Interrupt the cycle of rumination
● Improve physical health
● Provide introspective opportunities
● Direct dialogue

When we create, we’re focused on that task alone. That allows our nervous systems to calm down and our minds to break the cycle of rumination (the constant worry about something). It’s a cognitive disruption that can center us. However, our subconscious is rarely idle. While we create, it sends clear messages through our work. That can later serve as a dialogue direction. Art therapy is a complementary method, often used with traditional treatment when voicing thoughts and concerns is difficult.

Seeking help is hard. Sometimes, we can’t even admit our own thoughts to ourselves. We hide them, like dirty little secrets. Therefore, voicing them out loud, in front of a stranger can be a mortifying prospect. That’s when art therapy can help, as a form of a substitute or at least a supplement to verbal expression. Maybe we aren’t able to express ourselves at that moment with words, but stress and anxiety art therapy can provide an outlet. We can put our feelings and thoughts on paper. It can also be a great way to cognitively restructure our triggers — what causes our stress or anxiety.

Both mental and physical health can benefit from art therapy. Stress, anxiety, and depression affect not only our minds but our bodies as well. High blood pressure, issues with the thyroid and other glands in the endocrine system, as well as high or low body mass can all be stress and anxiety-related. Therefore, when we work on centering and calming our nervous systems, we’re also working on our physical issues.

However, art therapy can also provide us with much-needed breakthroughs. It can reveal parts of our personalities, issues, or triggers we were unaware. It allows us to dig beneath the surface and unearth everything (or at least most) that’s there.

In young people, especially students, anxiety and stress are very common. While we navigate life and try to figure out what to do with it, the feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, of being misunderstood and clueless are a common occurrence. Art therapy helps us voice it, and it encourages play and creativity as a form of venting.

When it comes to anxiety, healthy expression and healthy coping mechanisms go a long way. We may never overcome our anxiety completely, but at least we can learn what triggers anxiety, what stress does to us, and how to cope with both.

While there are various forms of art therapy exercises, some of the most common ones for students dealing with stress and anxiety are:

● Drawing in the Darkness — a great exercise that utilizes art therapy benefits without overburdening those overly critical about their drawing abilities.

● Anxiety Expressing Itself — this exercise entails a free-form drawing from the perspective of your anxiety. Imagine where in your body the tension is and how it would express itself. Then, try to analyze the picture — what is your anxiety trying to tell you? Is it trying to protect you? Warn you? Discuss with your therapist.

● A Collage of Calm and Safety — similar to the panic Book, this collage is supposed to represent a happy thought. Create your own safe place from memories of a place, person, or an experience.

● What Anxiety Looks Like

● Mind-body Connection — Draw a simple silhouette of your body and mark different spots with different sensations — pain, discomfort, tension. That provides insight into how our mind, and, in turn, stress and anxiety, are affecting our physical state.

● One Minute Brain Dump

● Mind Map Anxiety — pinpointing and labeling components and triggers that lead to anxiety and stress.

● Gratitude Journaling — focusing on the positive. The gratitude journal will help us step away from the anxiety and see the bigger picture — although anxiety and stress occupy most of our mental energy, there are still things that are good and that we should be grateful for.

If you’re having trouble getting started, your therapist might give you a visual starter. It’s an image or a prompt that will stimulate the creative process.

Because our anxiety and stress can be triggered by anything, and we often can’t pinpoint the exact cause, there are various exercises that we can try out to either deal with or determine the cause of both. Art therapy provides amazing on-site therapy techniques and exercises. The ones mentioned above are just some of them. But here’s what you can utilize to deal with anxiety and stress outside of the therapy setting.

Because stress leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to panic. Therefore, a full-blown panic attack is sometimes just a few moments away from that first stress inducer. Because panic needs to be managed, we need to not only pinpoint triggers but also avoid them. However, sometimes anxiety and panic rise seemingly out of nowhere. That’s when having a Panic Book can come in handy. That is an excellent exercise because it can help us even when we’re outside of the therapy setting. Think of it as your own personal “happy place.”

Preparations for a Panic Book are easy enough — all we need is a sketch or a notebook, and materials that we cut out of magazines, some markers, coloring pens, or any other medium that we’d like to stick, draw or otherwise administer to paper.

Assign a theme to each page — something that will ground you, make you feel calmer, or simply something that you love. Create that feeling on paper by using the various mediums. In times of trouble, when stress and anxiety kick into overdrive, use the pages filled with love and serenity to ground you.

As mentioned, it’s tough to visualize anxiety. We can have trouble describing it or explaining it to others. However, if we don’t imagine and pinpoint it, we can’t address and treat it. That’s why it’s vital that we represent it in any way. What Anxiety Looks Like is an exercise that you can do both with your therapist, individually or in a group, and by yourself — whenever inspiration (or a particularly severe anxiety attack) strikes.

So, how do we start? We start with a simple question — if my anxiety had a body, what would it look like? It can be a monster, human-looking, or just an abstract drawing — whatever you feel like. Next, imagine the personality of your anxiety — what does it like? How does it talk? What does it care about?

Work your way from your anxiety to yourself. What do you look like with anxiety? What would you look like without it? Draw everything and discuss the drawing with your therapist. It might prove to be a dialogue direction you needed for a breakthrough.

Anxiety has that nasty habit of creeping up on us. However, we also have some bad habits — minimizing the anxiety or the impact that stress has on us. We negate our feelings because we’re terrified that we might just be overreacting. After all, so many other people are cruising through their lives and their problems — why can’t we?

That is a terrible habit and a lousy coping mechanism. We can’t pretend that our anxiety isn’t there — the fear might cripple us! But, we can’t trick our subconscious, can we? In fact, we can. To avoid rationalizing or minimizing our anxiety and stress, we can do a One-minute Brain Dump exercise.

Draw a thought bubble — a simple circle on a page. Then, take one minute to fill it out with words. Write anything that comes to mind that’s burdening you at that moment. The time limit will make you stop overthinking and force you to let everything that comes to mind out (where it should be).

You can even enhance the One-minute brain dump with the next exercise — The Worry Cloud. After you’ve drawn your bubble and filled it with worries, imagine or draw your concerns being blown away. You can also transform your bubble into something else as an exercise in reshaping your fears.

● Improving cognition
● Stimulating and enhancing sensory and motor functions
● Building emotional resilience
● Providing insight and developing social skills
● Building self-esteem
● Working through conflict and stress

Because it is a form of artistic expression, art therapy can improve creativity. Creativity and expression are vital parts of our cognitive functioning, working on and improving our creativity can help us deal with a lot of issues — stress and anxiety included. A creative outlet is a form of venting, addressing and communicating the issues at hand, as well as a tool that will provide balance and homeostasis for our mental and physical wellbeing.

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