Exploring Anxiety and Art
My name is Annalise De Young, and I graduated this spring with my degree in Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy from Lesley University. My thesis project was about exploring anxiety, particularly my own anxiety through art, and I wanted to share a little bit of that journey with this community.
When I look back on human history, I see that there are many constants, things that are always there in some form, and one of those constants is art. When I talk about art, it means more to me than just pictures on a page, it’s all the creative processes and expressions—visual, musical, theatrical and so on. Creating something is a way that we have processed our lives and experiences since the dawn of time. This is why ancient pieces of writing, art, and music still appeal to us because there is something about those human experiences written into that piece of art that we share. So I began the process of exploring my anxiety through art.
For me, anxiety is a very physical experience. A lot of the time I become aware of something physical before my brain kicks in to notice that we are on the fast track to Anxious Land. The biggest clue is that my jaw will be clenched, and once I notice that it usually follows that I notice knots in my stomach and hands that cannot be kept still. Sometimes, it just feels like the overwhelming need to escape. I kept a journal for a couple months focusing just on the physical feelings of being anxious, and then, I brought them into the art studio.
I wanted to make what I felt inside of myself visible to the outside world, and I wondered what these feelings would look like on the outside of my body, painted on my skin. And I wanted to get to know those feelings, so I could name them, face them, and feel them without letting them take control. I began each of the painting sessions by reading through my journal entries until I found something that stuck out to me. I spent time remembering that feeling, trying to find it back within my body, and then I started to paint.
Here is an example of one of the descriptions I found in my journal, and the painting that came from it: This one is sudden—it feels like my air is gone. It radiates and sucks itself in like a swirling vortex of terror, but in slow motion. It pulls everything into a great, big emptiness.
I spent hours in the studio painting what my anxiety felt like, and since this was for research, I was also filming, photographing and documenting along the way. On my last day of painting, I was sitting on the studio floor reading through my journal entries like I had done each of the previous times. I was looking for an image or feeling from the journal that stood out to me that day when I realized I was ready to paint myself strong. As I looked at the journal pages, I felt like I knew those feelings already, I understood them better than I had on the day I started painting, but I wanted to paint myself strong. I survived those feelings, in this body, in this skin, and it was strong—it is strong, and so am I.
Through all the research and my own life experience, I learned a few things, and one of the biggest lessons was that it can be almost impossible to tackle anxiety with just a single approach, like therapy or medication, or meditation. Anxiety becomes part of our train of thought, running on a parallel track until it derails us. It is something that we have to approach from multiple angles in order to really get ahead of it. I also came to recognize that anxiety is well-intentioned, but it is dangerous when it becomes too powerful. Anxiety wants to keep us safe, and it thrives on the unknown.
Art is a useful tool for relaxation and meditation, for keeping the mind calm, which are excellent things for a person who experiences anxiety. But art can also take us through some of the more difficult parts of our journey, the parts that are not easy to talk about. When there are no words for what we feel, we can turn to art to express ourselves. For some of us that could mean dancing, for others writing. It could mean picking up an instrument or picking up a paint brush.
Annalise is a freshly-minted Expressive Arts Therapist born and raised in Grand Rapids, MI. She attended City High School, Alma College, and Lesley University. She has a passion for helping people discover and rediscover creative paths to healing in their lives and their communities, and for helping people to express things without words. Truly ‘smitten with the mitten,’ she is always drawn to the water, loves all four seasons (yes, even winter), and all the adventures that Michigan has to offer. When at home you would likely find her hanging out with her rabbit (Matteo), crocheting, making art, or enjoying the thrills of Netflix. To hear more send her an email at email@example.com.