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How to Process Your Feelings Through Making Art

How to Process Your Feelings Through Making Art

By Pam Dewey • Mental Health • September 17, 2020

Opening a fresh box of crayons evokes a sense of happiness, whether you’re 6 or 46. The smell when you open the box, the freshly sharpened tips arranged in neat, colorful rows: a new box of crayons feels like endless possibilities and joy. Creating something beautiful with your hands feels good, whether you’re coloring a picture, painting a scene or forming a figure out of clay.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people find themselves struggling with a range of emotions. Marking art can be a good way to process your feelings and improve your mood.

“Art taps into things we can’t always talk about,” says Art Therapist and Fraser Day Treatment Service Lead Briana Colton.

According to Colton, working with a variety of materials can help you explore a variety of emotions.

Create a container for your grief

For someone who is grieving, Colton suggests finding a small box, like a shoebox. The box will represent the person you’ve lost. You can then decorate or collage the shoebox, and put things inside the box that remind you that person. When you’re missing your person, you can take out your mementos from the box. If you start to feel overwhelmed, you can put the items back in the box.

“It helps to have a container for these big feelings,” says Colton.

Fluid materials help release feelings

Feelings like grief, sadness and depression can leave you feeling blocked – like you’re having trouble expressing what you are feeling. When you’re really struggling to express feelings like these, Colton recommends you use fluid materials. Fluid materials are items like paints or pastels. You can’t control these items as easily. Using these materials gives you the freedom to let loose, allowing your feelings to flow out onto paper, canvas or whatever surface you’ve chosen.

“Painting can be more of a release exercise,” says Colton. “You might explore the colors or the textures of your feelings, which can be both soothing and revelatory.”

For people with physical disabilities or older adults, working with watercolors can be particularly relaxing and therapeutic. Watercolors are less precise and more forgiving.

Colton also says if you find yourself overwhelmed with emotions, you might need to do an activity afterward that helps ground you, like going for a walk, drawing with a pencil or doing yoga.

Allow children to explore art freely

Colton suggests if you’re encouraging your child to process his or her feelings through art-making, it’s important to tell your child that whatever they create is okay. His or her art project is about self-expression, not perfection.

Resistive materials can be calming and expressive

If you’re feeling many feelings, Colton suggests an art project with more resistive materials like pencils, pens and markers. These items ground you and provide more of a tactical sensation as you’re creating.

For someone who is experiencing anxiety or trauma, creating a container for those feelings can also be helpful. You might find coloring a mandala — a circular, repetitive pattern — is calming. All your emotions are then contained within this circular shape.  

Sketching an image of your feelings can be soothing, or you might find responding to prompts is therapeutic. When you speak, you only have words to express how you’re feeling. Drawing allows you to express multiple emotions in one piece of art.

Crocheting, knitting and embroidery can also alleviate depression and anxiety. While working on these projects, you must focus on counting stitches or loops, which distracts your mind from negative or anxious thoughts. The repetitive motion also can release serotonin, which increases feelings of well-being and happiness.

“We might not know why we’re feeling anxiety, depression or grief. But when you create art, you can look at an image and say, ‘Yes, that’s how I feel.’ It validates your experiences and helps with meaning-making.”