Activism and anxiety are frequently associated. What can activists do to reduce feelings of worry and anxiety? Jessica Harwood shares some simple art therapy exercises for mindfulness, relaxation and anxiety management.
Activists do not choose an easy life. It takes a special sort of person to look at all the issues that grate against our nerves and make us feel dispirited, such as climate change or Australia’s treatment of refugees, and plan to engage with them on a daily basis. Not only is the subject matter often difficult to engage with but also the pressure of campaigns is often constant and relentless. Always being connected to Twitter and Facebook, the constant ping of our mobile phones and the 24-hour news cycle scatters our calm and focus.
Sometimes these pressures are just part of the general anxiety of our frantic lives. Sometimes this general anxiety tips over into an anxiety disorder, which can be a very unpleasant experience involving frantic thoughts, buckets of self-doubt and panic attacks. Either way it is important that we schedule time away from our ‘to-do’ lists and deal with our anxieties to prevent this from happening.
Art and mindfulness
There are many different ways of understanding mindfulness as a practice. To me, mindfulness means being an observer, reconnecting with the present moment and acknowledging that anxious thoughts and self-judgments are merely one way of perceiving reality.
When we are caught up in our mind’s anxious and often judgmental thoughts, we take them as gospel and move from thought to thought, often not realizing we are having them. Mindfulness means taking a moment to slow down, acknowledge our thoughts and observe their effect on us. It requires us to be observers of our own thought patterns and reactions to them.
Art-making is a perfect companion to mindfulness as it demands that we are present in the moment and that we are an observer. You can’t draw without looking and seeing your subject matter. You are forced into tangible experiences happening right then, such as the feel of the dusty charcoal on your fingers or the way the paints mix together. You don’t even have to draw well to experience the benefits!
The following are a couple of exercises you might like to try if your nerves are feeling frayed and you want to relax with some paints or pencils.
1. Take a pause and drawing your breath
This is a really easy exercise that will reconnect you to the present moment, and focus and calm your mind. You can even do it while you are on call-waiting or at your desk.
Take a pen and trace your breathing on a piece of paper. Draw the peaks and troughs of your breath as accurately as possible. If you don’t breathe in or out for a second, draw a flat line. When you reach the end of the page, go backwards across the page and repeat the exercise until you’re feeling focused and calm.
When flustered from the bustle of the day, in the grip of anxiety or during a panic attack, we all know breathing is the remedy. It also one of the most difficult things to force ourselves to do in that moment. With a pen in your hand, this gives us something to focus on and makes the task a little easier.
2. Be an observer for a moment, not an activist
Activists are activists in the true meaning of the word. They find it hard to stop and observe the world go by without commenting, tweeting or writing an article about it.
Choose a scene and observe it for two or three minutes. Take in all the colours, the shapes, the objects that you can see. See how the objects and shapes connect and where they are placed. Observe where the shadows are and where the light areas are. Then turn away from the scene and try to draw it as accurately as possible from memory. This really tests your memory and observational skills, and trains you to see, not just look.
Remember how much fun you had as a kid, getting completely covered in that paint and probably painting your friends too? Finger painting is seriously therapeutic, once you embrace the fact its going to get messy.
For this activity, it doesn’t matter what you paint. I suggest putting a blob of paint in the middle of the page and sticking your finger in it. Ask yourself what it feels like, think of some adjectives. Wet, cold, sticky, like chocolate mousse? Then begin to spread it around the page. Add other colours and mix them together, observing what colours they make.
Treat it like an active meditation on the feeling and colours of the paint. When you find your mind wandering, acknowledge the thoughts you’re having and bring your focus back to the paint. And enjoy it!
Jessica Harwood is an artist and lawyer. She has worked on environmental and political campaigns. She has been a worrier and has often used art as a means to relax or deal with anxious thoughts and feelings.
Do you know of other art-based exercises that help reduce worry and anxiety that you can recommend to others?