Using Art to Get Through Anxiety

Mental health issues can plague anyone at any time. It isn’t biased by ethnicity, religion or gender. January 31st is Bell Let’s Talk Day here in Canada with the goal of helping to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues and encouraging people to very plainly, just talk about it. Because this is a topic that is important to me, I wanted to share my own story today, in hopes that it might help or inspire someone else.

I’ve always been an anxious person and perhaps even more so after my Dad passed away from Cancer almost 10 years ago. I found myself being affected by dizzy spells, panic attacks and general worry that something bad was going to happen to me or someone close to me all the time. I was working two jobs for a while to pay my bills, but also because it distracted me from having to be alone too long with my thoughts. It felt like that was an effective coping mechanism until it gave way to other symptoms like exhaustion, extreme muscle tension, and the aforementioned panic attacks. The thing about grief is that it refuses to be ignored. You can try to avoid it or run from it, but at the end of the day, it’s still there waiting for you to deal with it. Stuffing your feeling down inside rarely works without consequences. It will always find a way to manifest itself in another way.
What I came to realize with a lot of self-reflection and help through the aid of some great advice from professional psychologists, was that first and foremost, I was not alone. Second, that the emotional pain I was feeling was normal and that there was help to get through it. Everyone’s timeline with grief is different as well as how they deal with it. I realized at one point, that I still wasn’t really dealing with it. This is where art entered the picture for me. While I have always been an artist throughout my life, I would say that my art has never really been emotional or personal. Most artists, including myself, tend to be very emotional and feeling based people but never had channeled any of that into what I was creating.

During a conversation with one of my previous Psychologists, she asked me what kind of art I was making. I went on to explain and she asked if I was every creating anything expressive or emotional in my work. The answer, of course, was no. I’ve created artwork that is personal to me, yes, but it always felt like I was showing too much of myself when I had. The thought of making art that was too personal or emotional made me really uncomfortable. When I played in a band in my teen and early adult years, I had no problem expressing myself that way through music. I think I started to experiment with expressing myself through art that way as well in that time but I never pushed myself to keep going. At some point, I decided that I was uncomfortable or even embarrassed by what I was feeling. I also let the discomfort others in my life at the time had towards not wanting to deal with my emotions turn into my discomfort as well.

Left and Center: Photos of me in the early 2000’s channeling all my emotions through music in my rock band. Right: The last painting I remember doing that had any deep emotional significance, also from the early 2000’s that is unfinished.

This same psychologist had the suggestion that I draw the moment that my Dad had passed away. In that assignment, I was to draw him and myself showing what I was feeling at that moment. It was really put off by the idea, but feeling committed to doing the work to help myself I did it. It was hard, uncomfortable and I cried throughout it, which made me realize in the process I needed to do it. Oddly enough, despite my skepticism, something happened when I did. Something changed. We discussed the drawings when I brought them into my next session, and I felt like part me had released something I had been holding on to. It’s not that my grief suddenly disappeared, but it was like drawing it finally made me really look at it and confront it. It was the first step of many to really dealing with the loss I had experienced years before.

I decided a couple of things after that experience. While I wasn’t ready to suddenly change the type of art I was creating publicly, I knew that there was room for me to do it privately. I’m a huge advocate of having a sketchbook that no one ever has to see. This can basically act as a visual diary or journal for you to be expressive in whatever way you want, without judgment. It doesn’t matter if your drawings are good, if the technical aspects are correct, or ultimately if anyone is made uncomfortable with what you are creating. It’s for you and no one else. Having this creative outlet has done a lot for me. Finding a renewed passion for art has also helped me focus my thoughts on something productive and positive when my anxiety starts to peak. It changes the conversation in my head from the destructive and negative. Art, in a lot of ways, has saved me. It’s something that no one can take away from me, and it feels safe even when it’s uncomfortable.

Going forward, as I focus on what feels authentic to me as a person and artist, I want to continue experimenting with work I’m creating to find that balance between creativity and catharsis. For me, using art in a therapeutic way has become a tool that I can use to help deal with emotions that are difficult to process. Finding what works for you is different for everyone, but if your reading this now and any of this has resonated with you, I encourage you to try using a visual journal to help. In addition to that, I also want to advocate for speaking to a professional about whatever you are going through. There’s no shame in it. When your body is sick or in need of help, you go to a doctor. Your brain is an organ and part of your body, so therefore it deserves equal help and attention. You don’t have to go through it alone. Choose to be an advocate for your happiness and well being. Who knows, you may even create some amazing art in the process.

If you would like to learn more or participate in Bell Let’s Talk Day visit their website to discover the ways that you can help HERE.

Barb Sotiropoulos

Barb Sotiropoulos

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

5 Responses

  1. I’ve never had anxiety issues (self-esteem issues are my mental challenge), but the more I read about others’ struggle with it, the more I sympathize with such a battle. It seems like such a crippling matter for some, especially in the US where getting any medical care can be financially difficult…especially medical care for a problem that’s deemed “all in your head” by too many insurers. Glad you were able to get help and find a creative way to work through/with it.

    1. Thanks Tammie 🙂 I definitely don’t even have it as bad as some people but it’s been a struggle for sure. At my worst point I wasn’t able to drive on the highway by myself without having a panic attack. Luckily, I can now and it was at that point I realized I really needed to see someone. I was really lucky to have access to free services which was nice. I think the cost for some people can just add to whatever they are feeling so not having that barrier was great. That being said it’s not 100% free all the time and you may have to wait a while to get the appointments you want but it’s still available which I think is crucial.

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Hey, I'm Barb!

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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