I have been going to therapy for the better part of seven years, but it wasn’t until last year that my therapist asked me to draw. On the table when I arrived for our session were a few leaves of copy paper and a used pack of oil pastels. I bypassed the presentation. I hadn’t thought of art as self-care. I was used to diving right into conversation, usually talking very quickly about points I had gone over with myself in the car. I always jumped straight into analyzing the previous week. But this time, my therapist told me not to do that. Instead, she asked me to make use of the supplies in front of me and said, “Draw how you feel.”
I didn’t know how I felt. Half of the reason I even attended therapy sessions was to put words to how I felt, and we hadn’t begun to talk yet. I stared at the colors available to me, and noticed how the popular choices were worn to nubs with the papers ripped off. As a child, I always chose the most pristine crayons in the box. I found myself repeating that reflex, selecting a light blue with enough pastel poking from the wrapping to scribble all over the page. If I was going to draw how I felt, I thought, confusion probably looked something like that.
The unexpected benefits of art as self-care
Later I would wonder why my muscles relaxed as I continued drawing. Later is when I would learn that with each color selection and mark on the page, I was stimulating my vagus nerve. Each creative choice I made was regulating my parasympathetic nervous system. I was no longer stuck in my thoughts; in fact, I was no longer in my head at all — I was in my subconscious, a place that is much smarter than any part of my brain and the part of me that knows me best.
The emerging field of neuroaesthetics
One can reference the study of neuroaesthetics to understand the positive effects of my experience and of art as self-care. Susan Magasmen, founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins, writes,
“The field of neuroaesthetics offers research-based evidence that a variety of arts-based approaches may work to improve quality of life, mobility, mental health, speech, memory, pain, learning, and more. Such interventions could potentially lower the cost and burden of chronic disease, neurological disorders, and mental health issues for millions of people.”
That art can beget wellness is a relatively new idea, and it is being explored more widely in these times of rapidly declining mental and physical health.
In 2011, a University of London study revealed that looking at art directs blood flow to the pleasure center of the brain — the same area that lights up when you’re looking at the person you’re in love with. Scientists from UC Berkeley published a study in 2015 in the journal “Emotion” that stated any activities which inspire a sense of awe have “a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.” This could go from experiencing a wondrous moment in nature to engaging with a work of art.
New research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center points to how the arts positively influence well-being to the extent of increasing a person’s lifespan. Even simply viewing art has the potential for health benefits, such as reducing blood pressure, chronic pain, and anxiety. With the natural spike in serotonin and dip in cortisol levels provided by aesthetic experience, these results are as inevitable as they are accessible.
Putting creative self-care into practice
You don’t need to go to therapy to reap the benefits of art as self-care. You don’t even need to draw your feelings with oil pastels (though I highly recommend it). The only requirement is to engage with your innermost self, who you have likely been avoiding, and see what they have to say. The medium is entirely up to you.
Drawing with reckless abandon is a great place to start, especially if you struggle with control in your daily life. If you are burdened with perfectionism, make something bad on purpose. Choose the instrument with the experience that feels best in your hand, whether that be the smearing black dust of a charcoal stick, a solid paintbrush smothered in acrylic or a wet hunk of clay on a potter’s wheel.
Then, observe what comes up. Are you choosing more colors that are bright or ones that are muted? Are your shapes more flowy and organic or sharp and geometric? As I drew with my therapist, I noticed that I was imposing order on the original chaos I created: Within the blue scribbles, I put down a balanced number of circles, and rounded triangles and filled them all in with the same pink color. It appeared to be a pattern, revealing that my subconscious was seeking familiarity in a turbulent time of my life.
For a more directed practice, you may consider some prompts. Create the likeness of a familiar object entirely from memory. Cut images from magazines and collage your emotions. If you’re feeling more observant, you may choose to look at art instead of making it. Visit a museum. View pieces in digital galleries. Ask pointed questions: What is the piece saying to you? How do you think the artist felt when they made the work? Notice what you respond to and name your emotions.
Beyond traditional self-care, getting creative with your practice can provide new avenues for self-connection and self-expression. You don’t have to be an artist for your inner child to be engaged by paints and markers. Wake up that part of you, create without judgment, and see how much calmer you feel afterward.
Let us know in the comments which methods you try when it comes to art as self-care, or share your own ideas you’d like to explore. Tell us how you take care of yourself in an artful way.
Kendall McKinnon is a freelance writer based in Savannah, GA. Her work has been featured in Savannah Magazine, France Today, District, and more.