5 stress-relieving activities recommended by art therapists that you can try at home right now
You can use items you have lying around the house, and most importantly, no art experience is necessary
Perhaps it's happened to you: you Google "how long will this last" and, after reading the third or fourth link, you feel the knot inside your stomach double. Or maybe it's because you've been laid off, or because you still have to go to work, or because you're suddenly extra worried about that tickle in your throat. We don't need to count all the reasons; this is undeniably a very stressful time.
Stress is a regular bodily response to an irregular situation, and it is totally normal to feel some amount of stress, anxiety or worry because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it's disrupted our lives. Exercise can help alleviate such feelings; so can meditation. But if you're having trouble soothing those frayed nerves, have you thought about making some art?
Art therapy, according to the national professional association CATA, is a good way to communicate thoughts and feelings that might otherwise be difficult to articulate. What sorts of things can art therapy help with? "Well, the list is long," says Stephen Legari, the resident art therapist at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. There are practitioners specializing in everything from palliative care to career achievement. Just like other forms of psychotherapy, art therapy can only be conducted in the presence of a qualified professional — but there are many therapeutic art activities you can try at home.
These five come suggested by art therapists as ways to relieve stress particular to this public health crisis. They are intended for people of all ages. The projects can be done by yourself or with whomever you're bunkered down beside (maybe whoever's on the other end of your FaceTime or Zoom call, too). And most importantly, no art experience is necessary. It's not about making something to hang on your wall — it's about all the positive things that can happen when you're creating.
"It's hard to get people started in art," Legari says. "It's something we haven't been encouraged to do since we were children a lot of the time." He recommends collage as an easy activity for those unfamiliar or maybe uncomfortable with making art.
Begin by closing the computer, putting away your phone and turning on some music — you are trying to create an atmosphere to focus on the artmaking, he says. Gather together whatever materials you can find around the house to cut up, whether that's old magazines, newspapers or greeting cards. "Anything can become a collage."
For this activity, he suggests building a collage dedicated to a person in your life. "Focus on someone you feel might need a little bit of support right now. Let the colours and the words that come out of the collage that you make be about them and the support you want to extend."
"While these activities have a number of benefits in terms of helping us feel calmer, helping the time pass and focusing on something besides the news, they also help us to connect," says Legari. He suggests taking a picture of the artwork and sharing it with the person who inspired it. At a moment when distance and isolation is critical, this is a way to strengthen our connections. Not only will it improve your own mood, it can also do some mood lifting in a more social sense as well.
Salt dough sculpting
Sharona Bookbinder, the Canadian Art Therapy Association's director of governance and government relations and a practicing art therapist for 27 years, says even if people don't have art supplies at home, there are still plenty of things they can use to express themselves. A homemade dough for sculpting can be made with as little as two common pantry ingredients and some water. There are plenty of recipes for salt dough online; some recipes can air dry, while others need a short bake in the oven to harden. Afterward, sculptures can be coloured with paint or markers.
After you've made your dough, Bookbinder suggests searching your home for items — ones that can safely be washed later — that have an interesting texture. "Things like, say, a toothbrush, a rolling pin, chopsticks — anything that has a unique shape or texture that you can press into the dough to make an impression." Find what patterns appeal to you and see where the experiments lead. Perhaps you make a fridge magnet or a piece of jewelry, or maybe your sculpture is more playful and abstract. "There's so much to explore and the important thing is that there's no way to do it wrong," Bookbinder says. "It's a little bit of play; it's exploration; and it's feeling productive, too."
The activity gets participants "out of their left brain (where the worry centre is located) and more into their right brain, with visuo-spatial skills being used," she says. "It quiets the chatter of the mind. There are different levels of consciousness, and we always have this sort of ticker tape of thoughts in our mind, even when we're doing other things. What [this activity] does is that it occupies that consciousness so you can focus on something else. It will right away lower blood pressure, respiration and muscle tension. Using your mind in a different way will immediately have a physiological effect on you."
For the past two weeks, Toronto-based art instructor and art therapist Claire Nicholls has used the Instagram and Twitter accounts of her studio, Picasso's Garage, to issue daily art challenges under the hashtag #CreateArtFeelBetter. For her first challenge, she digitally altered the painting of a crying boy that once hung in her childhood home and had always creeped her out. Nicholls removed the child's tears and added an eye mask and cape, transforming the crying child into a superhero.
To make your own altered image, first find an interesting picture, she says. It could be from a newspaper or a magazine or something you've found online. You can work either digitally or in hard copy, using paint, markers or pencils to reinvent the image.
"You could, for example, take something that scares you or something you're worried about and give it a happy ending," Nicholls suggests. When the world around feels especially turbulent right now, she says, this exercise offers back some sense of control and agency.
For this activity — which Legari says he'd practiced himself earlier that day — find some larger sheets of paper (or even newspaper) and two coloured markers, one for your right hand and one for your left. Let your right hand scribble for a couple minutes. Then let your left hand do the same. "You can increase the speed or slow down," Legari says. "You can follow your breath." Then, you can go in afterward and shade in the spaces made by the intersecting lines, as if you've drawn your own colouring book. He likens it to meditation; your goal is to be mindful of the activity.
"The human condition is such that we're not well-equipped to deal with uncertainty," he says. "And these little art activities where you're practicing letting go, where you're practicing not having control over the product so much or letting go of needing the product to look like something, can have these minor benefits of helping you deal with a world that is changing very quickly."
Step digitally into a different world
Hundreds of museums worldwide, including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, have been sharing links to view their digitized collections online. For an activity of contemplation, Legari suggests clicking through some of these repositories to find an artwork you find interesting and writing a short description of it.
"Some nice questions to ask yourself are: What does this remind me of? Is this somewhere I would like to go? What story would I tell about this image? If I could ask the artist a question, what would it be?"
"This is not about art critique or art analysis," Legari says. "Describe it in terms of, 'I like the colours,' 'I like the way they move,' 'doesn't he look interesting?'" "I find using descriptive language is a really helpful way to enter into using art in this way — phrases like 'I notice' and 'I see,'" the therapist explains. "'I notice there's a lot of blue,' 'I see a lot of squiggly lines,' 'I observe that there's a big sky.' Descriptive language is non-judgmental language; it doesn't require the person to have a certain kind of vocabulary to talk about art. We're really just talking about appreciating something and letting it kind of take us away a little bit."
"I think everyone has permission to lose themselves in a different world for a little while right now."
CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.