How to Relieve Stress Through Drawing, According to an Art Therapist

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When you’re feeling stressed, a little bit of self-care can make all the difference. That includes the basics like exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. But it also could mean trying a new hobby, like drawing. And while we’ve scribbled in our fair share of adult coloring books and assisted with preschool art projects, we’re nowhere near experts. Which is why we asked an art therapist to share her tips. Here, how art therapy works and six exercises to help you relieve stress through drawing.

Here’s Why Art Therapy Is Helpful

“The process of creating art in and of itself often helps people feel relaxed,” explains Casey O’Brien Martin, a licensed mental health counselor, registered expressive arts therapist, registered nurse and school social worker who is the founder of Whole Child Counseling and an adjunct faculty member at Lesley University. It can also be a way to practice mindfulness—a welcome departure from quiet meditation, if that’s not your thing. “The person is focused on the art-making process. They are not thinking about the past or worried about what is going on in the world,” she says. Art can also help you feel a little more in control. And who wouldn’t want that?

The Benefits Are Proven

According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, a 45-minute session with an art therapist can reduce levels of cortisol (aka the stress hormone) in healthy adults. The participants also noted that the experience made them want to create art more often, indicating that it was a positive experience for them.

But scientists are just beginning to understand why drawing and making art is such an amazing stress reliever. “Initial studies have demonstrated that creating art increases significant blood flow to the medial prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain that is related to feeling rewarded, which means creating art can elicit positive emotions,” explains Martin, citing a 2017 study in The Arts in Psychotherapy.

It’s Useful When Dealing with Complicated Emotions

Maybe you can’t put your finger on why that comment your partner just made bothered you so much. Making art about it can help. Martin notes that when we’re not sure how to express how we’re feeling, drawing and art making can be a great tool. “When things are difficult, words may fail us and may not be able to capture the complexity of our feelings and experiences. When words fail, images can capture and express our feelings and experiences more accurately,” she says. So if you need to clear your head, grab a pencil and your notebook and see what emotions come up for you. You might be surprised.

You Don’t Have to Be Artistically Talented to Get Started

For many adults, the biggest barrier to making art is that they don’t consider themselves artists. But according to Martin, that’s not a valid excuse. “Anyone can benefit from creating art!” she says. “You don’t need to worry about the end product—just let go and allow yourself to engage in the process of creation. There are no right or wrong ways to make art.”

If you’re really feeling self-conscious about getting started, Martin suggests doodling with your nondominant hand or closing your eyes and scribbling. This way, you’re letting go of the expectation that what you create needs to be “good.”

Ready to draw? Here’s how to get started.

1. Draw a Peaceful Place

Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Then think about a peaceful place—it could be real or imaginary, or a combination of the two. Once you can picture it clearly, open your eyes and begin drawing. You can draw with and smudge these Pentel oil pastels to create the vivid scene you imagine.

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2. Draw to Music

Close your eyes and move your pen or pencil on the paper to the sound of music without being worried about the outcome, says Martin. You can use any song you feel like listening to—Martin likes the song “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Björk. Once the song is over, open your eyes to add more details and colors to the drawing, if you’d like. Brush pens, which allow you to vary your stroke size with pressure, are great for this type of exercise.

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3. Create a Zentangle

The zentangle method involves using a combination of dots, lines, curves and orbs to draw a pattern onto a small piece of paper called a “tile.” The tiles are then placed together to create a mosaic-like design. One Zentangle a Day offers step-by-step daily exercises to help you become familiar with the relaxing drawing technique.

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4. Illustrate a Positive Affirmation

Martin suggests choosing an affirmation that speaks to you (like “I am safe,” “I am loved” or “I am calm and I can handle anything”) and drawing it on a piece of paper with markers. (Martin’s favorite markers are Prismacolor double-sided art markers.) Once you’re done, Martin recommends hanging your affirmation somewhere you’ll see it every day to really reap the benefits.

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5. Scribble Out Your Feelings

If you’re feeling particularly upset or angry, take a thick black marker and make large scribbles on a large piece of butcher paper. “When you engage in creativity in this way, you are releasing energy and managing those uncomfortable stressful feelings in a healthy, cathartic way. It is not always about the end product of what you create, but just the process of creating in and of itself that can be therapeutic,” Martin explains.

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6. Draw a Picture of Things You’re Grateful For

Want to reduce anxiety and boost happiness at the same time? Researchers at the University of Miami discovered that writing about what you’re grateful for makes people feel more optimistic and satisfied about their lives overall. Take a few minutes to sketch your pet, your morning cup of coffee, the sun—whatever you feel grateful for these days. (Bonus points if you use colored pencils to add detail.)

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