Art Therapy and Mental Health…Have you Doodled Today?

As we look for ways to improve our mental health, mindfulness exercises such as colouring seem to be gaining in popularity.  The following post from the archives speaks to this, as well as giving an exercise to try.  Enjoy! 

If you have been out in the world over the past year, you may have noticed the increase in the number of adult colouring books for sale.  They are everywhere!  You can pick one up when buying your groceries, refilling prescriptions or waiting for your flight at the airport.  They cover a range of topics, disciplines, genres, moods, spirituality and life events.

In the October 2016 issue of Psychology Today, Emily Silber reports that an estimated 12 million colouring books were sold in the U.S. in 2015, up from 1 million in 2014.

When reflecting on the growth of this popular item; Silber quotes clinical psychologist, Ben Michaelis, who suggests that “even if colouring does not help people process negative feelings directly, it may a least offer an effective form of relief”.

Art Therapy

While some people may balk at this popular culture activity, using adult colouring books could be considered a form or art therapy.  The Canadian Association of Art Therapy describes art therapy as “the combination of the creative process and psychotherapy, facilitating self-exploration and understanding. Using imagery, colour and shape as part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate.”

While art has been used since the beginning of human history as a way to share thoughts and ideas–the oldest cave painting was found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain and dates back 40,000 years to the Aurignacian period–art therapy, as we know it, didn’t really start until the 1940’s.  The original art therapists were artists who recognized the value of creation on their own mental health, and chose to share the creation process with others.

If you are interested in a detailed history of art therapy, you can check out Art Therapy Journal for a wealth of information.

But What If I’m  not Creative and Can’t Draw?

While I am not an art therapist, in the past, I sometimes suggested a ‘drawing practice’ to clients–especially if they were working with anxiety and/or depression–as a way to calm their thoughts and shift their focus.  One of the most common responses that I heard was “I can’t draw” or “I’m not creative”.  The idea of being forced to create ‘art’ increased rather than decreased their level of anxiety.  So, instead I started suggesting a ‘mandala practice’.

What is a Mandala and How Do I Practice It?

Mandalas have been with us for a long time.  The word ‘mandala’ is Sanskrit for ‘circle’.  In Hindu and Buddhist traditions it is a graphic symbol for the universe.  Famous mandalas in the Christian tradition can be seen in the Celtic cross and rose windows.

In some traditions they have been used as part of meditation practices and some people believe that they have magical properties.  In fact, meditation paths are often built to form a mandala.

For people who don’t feel that they are creative (everyone is, whether they realize it or not!) or think that they can’t draw, a mandala practice is ideal as it is unstructured and free-form.  The practice doesn’t require a large outlay of cash for art supplies or take up a lot of space.  All that is required is a blank piece of paper, pen or pencil, pencil or regular wax crayons and a drinking glass or pot lid.  Intrigued?

The Mandala Practice

The way of this practice is to do it daily–similar to meditation practice or breathing exercises.  Besides being an enjoyable activity, there are many benefits to creating mandalas on a daily basis.  It is a way to step into mindfulness as you focus on the act of making your own mandala.  As you work, you may notice your thoughts slowing down.  As you engage the decision-making part of your brain, the emotional part of your brain may experience a sense of calm.  Clients have reported feeling a sense of accomplishment when they complete their mandala.  You are giving yourself the gift of a ‘time-out’.

There is no right or wrong way to do this practice–the value is in showing up.  It can take as much time, or as little, as you like.

Ready To Give It A Try?

Assemble the necessary tools (pen or pencil, blank paper, pencil or wax crayons, pot lid or glass) and find a comfortable place to work.

Step One
Empty out the box of crayons where you can see all the colours and easily reach them. This is easy if when sitting at a table.  Take a minute and appreciate the range of colours.  Think about the colours that you are drawn to and those you shy away from.  Take a deep breath.

Step Two
Using the pen or pencil, on the blank sheet of paper, trace around either the glass or pot lid.  The goal is to have  a circle of a size that you are happy with.

Step Three
Look at the selection of crayons, and without over-thinking it, choose one that appeals to you.  Using that crayon draw a shape inside the circle.  It can be anything you chose.  When you feel that the shape is complete, stop and return the crayon to the pile.  Take a deep breath.  Select another crayon and either add to the shape, or create another shape inside the circle.

Step Four
Continue  Step Three, until you feel that your mandala is complete.  Again, don’t overthink it.  You’ll know when it’s finished.  The circle may be filled, or it may only have one or a few items in it.

Step Five
Initial and date the mandala and file it way.

When you develop a regular practice, over time, you will have a collection of mandalas.  It is often interesting to look back over the series (several months’ worth) to see how the drawings, colour choices and subjects have changed.

Most of all…have fun!

Ultimate Mandalas–Made of Sand! 

As well as having my own mandala practice, I have been fascinated by the Tibetan practice of making sand mandalas. Their creation and destruction can be viewed as the ultimate expression of impermanence and love for the benefit of others.  Below are two clips showing this amazing act of creation.  The first gives a sped-up overview of the process. The second shows the process in more detail.

Enjoy!

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