Anxiety can rear its ugly head at the worst moments. Sometimes it is predictable – you have a presentation, or event that you are nervous about and your nerves grow, and grow. Sometimes anxiety manifests itself as a panic attack – which can be a sudden moment of heart-racing, tight-chested panic where you feel like you can’t breathe. The terrible thing about experiencing panic or anxiety, is that once you know what it feels like, it seems to come more frequently.
When we experience anxiety, our bodies do a few things to protect us. We either go into flight, fight, or freeze mode. Our heart rates rise, we get tunnel-vision, and we are super-focused on the thing that is causing us anxiety. In the past, this was a survival technique. Imagine your ancestor hunting in the jungle – they are focused, breathing shallowly, and intent on every little noise. They would have had a heightened response to anything that might startle them – in order to hunt, and in case they were being hunted by their own predators. These physical responses were helpful, then.
But when is the last time you’ve needed that level of focus on actual physical survival? When you are preparing for a meeting, or class presentation, the responses your body has left over from years past are not necessarily the most helpful ones. Instead of shallow breathing, you want to take deep breaths, in order to get oxygen flowing to all of your body, get outside of that tunnel vision, and be able to think creatively and on your feet.
Would you prefer to be able to think calmly, come up with creative solutions, and expand your vision rather than constricting it? You can build calm habits by practicing these techniques even when you are not in a stressful situation. You can exercise these calm muscles!
One of the most effective ways to do this is through art. Art is a great way to express the inner-anxiety, and work towards calm. It has the benefit of having a tactile experience that can connect with the primal part of you that might have gone into flight/fight/freeze mode. You can also create visual reminders for yourself to keep around your home or office to get you back into a calmer state.
Here are 5 different art projects you can do to practice breathing deep, having a sense of well-being and reducing your stress or anxiety.
- Imagine that you are staring deep into a body of water. Perhaps it is the ocean, with its predictable and calming repetition of waves crashing over, and over. Maybe it is a river, splashing over rocks and branches. Maybe it is a favorite lake. In any case, think about the water, whether it keeps moving on, determined and never-ending, or a still and flat surface that you can stare at forever. Use water-color paints to capture that feeling. Use a lot of water, and as you paint, take away the lessons from the ocean, river, or lake that are helpful to you.
- Imagine a place outdoor where you feel safe. Are there trees? Flowers? Is it in the mountains, the desert, or forest? Is there water nearby? Close your eyes and picture it, imagine what the air would feel like on your skin. Imagine the smells. Picture the light as it shines down on the plants and landscape around you. Use pastels to draw this place. Pastels are pretty messy, and smear very easily, which is why they are great for this. You are not trying to draw a perfect representation of what this place looks like, but get the calm and safe feeling across.
- Charcoal is an incredibly messy medium. It’s a great tactile experience for getting your stress out! For 30 seconds, use charcoal on paper and write words associated with your panic, pressing hard with the charcoal. After you are done, take a few minutes and think calming, helpful thoughts as you use your fingers to smear the words on the page. Take deep breaths while you do this, and watch as the harsh lines start to soften.
- People frequently describe anxiety as a monster that lives inside of them. Use clay (or play doh) to create your anxiety monster. Take a good long look at this monster, and think about what you need to defend yourself from it. Make that out of clay, and use it to defeat the anxiety. Bonus: you can smash clay, throw it, roll it into a ball and flatten it. Try taking action against your clay anxiety monster!
- If you’re facing a situation, event, or project that is contributing to your anxiety, it can help to create a visual “to do” collage. Use magazines, glue and paper to create a collage of things that will help you accomplish this goal. Forgo the scissors – rip the pages from the magazines. You’ll find that is a stress-buster in itself!