Anxiety, Stress and Art Therapy
Building a trusting relationship is at the forefront of any anxiety therapy. This is supported by recent research findings that indicate that perhaps all mental health disorders are impacted greatly by dysfunctional relationships and this seems especially true for anxiety disorders. To put it simply, anxiety work is relationship work; it’s not just exposure work and medication as frequently thought.
What seems to cause the client anxiety and stress still needs to be addressed. The verbal dialogue around the experience of anxiety has a stabilising and supportive effect on the therapeutic process. As the process unfolds, it is then a matter of applying art-therapeutic communication possibilities and approaches that can uncover unconscious material that needs to be integrated or used as a resource. This is the time and place where the discussion about the threatened relationships will come up.
Anxiety & Art Therapy
Art therapy takes a less practically orientated approach than behavioural therapy. Instead, the art therapist follows the client’s unconscious journey while keeping them safe. Answers to difficult and complex questions often don’t come easily and might take time until the client is ready to face them. The art of art therapy is to be intuitive, patient and avoid oversimplifying someone’s life and the challenges they face.
With clients who suffer extreme anxiety, I like to focus firstly on resource work to avoid overwhelming experiences. We work towards creating a safe place within art expressions and images that can oppose and balance the fear later. Many therapies seem to be too fast and simplistic to be effective in the long term. Because of funding issues, they don’t allow and don’t give enough space for the complexity of the clients’ stories and experiences to emerge.
Confrontation and exposure to the fear is normal praxis in behaviour therapy. In art therapy, we also explore the fear content, but we work more gently and more organically, following the lead of the client’s unconscious.
The result? The process is much more enjoyable for both the client and the therapist. In my experience, the approach helps to uncover what truly matters rather than becoming preoccupied with more trivial or secondary matters, such as snakes, spiders or piranhas. Working with the unconscious through art helps to uncover where the real pain and fear reside. Yes, it might well be actual piranhas, but in most cases, it has something to do with the client’s life experiences and threatened relationships. For example, the cause may be a father whose affection is offered conditionally based on success.
Stress & Art Therapy
Generally, art therapists start with spontaneous expressions before addressing the anxieties in the client. The spontaneous expressions reveal the topic sooner or later to the client and the therapist. Anxious clients often have a desire for paradise-like environments that oppose the anxiety-provoking situations they encounter. They often prefer drawing or painting ‘nice’ pictures instead of something dark and grim. People often wrongly assume that anxious clients are more likely to draw scary images in dealing with their anxiety. Anxious clients, however, long for a positive environment, one that offers connection. They sometimes draw or paint in a dreamy way, like a sunset over the ocean and a couple sitting on a rock watching the beautiful colours in the sky.
When a client feels connected to the therapist, other topics can emerge. For instance, the client might share about a spiral or a dark hole that threatens to pull them in. It’s incredibly difficult to find words to describe this lived experience of deep angst. Therefore, these pictures need art therapeutic support where the skilful art therapist first facilitates allowing deep angst imagery to happen while, at the same time, creating something that provides a place of safety to catch the breath. For example, we can propose creating a place that opposes the black hole, or we can ask the client to work with the spiral while bringing colour into it. In this way, we allow integration and facilitate future fears to be pulled into the present where they can be dealt with safely and constructively.
Mindfulness: Augmenting Art Therapy
Art therapy can also involve other techniques that augment the therapy. I have found that mindfulness work is extremely useful for anxiety and stress-related issues. I often integrate it into my work by focusing on the here and now in the imagery and art expression, encouraging the client to let go of thoughts about the past and future and to experience the moment intensively through the senses. I also recommend to all of my clients who are stressed and anxious to meditate at home, join a yoga class or go to a mindfulness workshop, like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Courses developed by Jon Kabat Zinn or a retreat with Melli O’Brien.
Robert GrayDirector and Senior Lecturer at CECAT
Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist
MA A. Th., AThR; B. Soc. Sc. (Psych.) (Hons.), MAPS.; BA. Theol. (Hons), MA Theol.
A highly regarded art therapy lecturer from Germany, Robert Gray has become a much sought-after art therapy lecturer and practising art therapist in Australia. His unique approach spanning psychodynamic, humanistic, spiritual and cognitive behavioural frameworks has distinguished him as a thought leader who is frequently invited to present at conferences in Australia and abroad.
Trained overseas and multilingual, German-born Robert shares the benefits of his international affiliations and access to cutting-edge research published in various languages with his students and readers. Robert is a professional member of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS).