Art and Anxiety

I recently shared a few thoughts about impostor syndrome and how I’ve been able to overcome it — for the most part. It’s a form of anxiety — a concern over how an art project will turn out, that imaginary feeling that everyone is watching me, an incessant worry that I’ll say or do the wrong thing. Again, I’ve gotten past that — for the most part.

Still, anxiety will always be part of life.  In addition to the sort of art anxiety I’ve experienced in the past, there are other interesting connections between art and anxiety. I set out to do a little research, and I’ve found that some paintings can supposedly reduce feelings of anxiety. Curious, I scrolled through the list. The truth? I did not feel any great sense of comfort from any of the paintings. One, in particular, actually made me feel more anxious:

 

Henri Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

If you’d like to see the complete list, you can visit Daily Art to see 10 Art Masterpieces to Calm Your Anxiety.  Again, as I scrolled through, I didn’t feel especially soothed, but I probably wasn’t doing it quite right. The site explains:

Breathe in, breathe out, relax, focus, look at the painting and actually start to see it. Look at the details. Ask yourself questions: What do you see? What elements catch your eye first? Which colors? Do you see any patterns, any relations between the elements of the painting? What emotions do you feel while looking at this particular piece? Time is your friend here. Even if you don’t see or feel anything at the beginning give yourself time. Be patient. Try to unwind from and let yourself dive into the universe of the painting, even for seconds or minutes, if not for hours.

It’s part of that idea of slow art that we discussed before. I think a lot of anxiety does stem from all the rushing around we do in our busy lives.

Another way to think about art and anxiety is to see the process of art as an antidote. Sometimes maybe it can help us alleviate stress and nervousness if we pick up a paintbrush and let our feelings out. Art is said to be cathartic — and not just visual arts. Culture Colectiva says this:

Writing a song, a book, a poem, or taking a picture, creating a sculpture, or a movie; they help people let out anything that messes with their minds. I guess that’s why they say artists are crazy.

Drawings and paintings that express anxiety can be disturbing, but if you’re up to it, you might want to follow this link — The Pain of Crippling Anxiety in 10 Paintings.

Poet T. S. Eliot said that anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity. It is thought to be the fuel that fires our passions, and the list of artists who have suffered from anxiety, depression, and mental illness is long. All things considered, it would seem that we need some anxiety in order to create art — in any form — but personally I’m not sure I want to think of art or creativity as products of an anxious mind. I want art to be restful, soothing, peaceful, and reflective.

My research led me to a lot of interesting articles about art, anxiety, and the connections between them. If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, you might want to check out these links:

Anxiety is the Handmaiden of Creativity

Why It’s OK to Be Anxious

Anxiety and Creativity

PODCAST: Anxiety and the Artist

Artists Who Suffered Mental Illness and How It Affected Their Art

Anxiety is a Sign of Creativity – Here’s How Artists Cope

All of this was interesting reading, but I think the most helpful — and most useful — advice comes from this article on how to Relieve Stress and Anxiety by Creating Art. It’s a good read, provides additional resources that might be of interest, and offers valuable tips:

  • Play and experiment with color
  • Keep a visual “gratitude” journal
  • Keep a daily sketchbook or art journal
  • Do a small painting a day
  • Start drawing shapes
  • Draw or paint your mood
  • Make a “spirit” or “soul” collage
  • Practice seeing and drawing
  • Try coloring
  • Join an art class or get together with friends to create art

These are great ideas whether we’re experiencing anxiety or not!

And so, it seems that “art and anxiety” are inextricably linked. We need a bit of anxiety in order to create art, yet we can also create art to relieve anxiety. I’m glad that my own “art anxiety” is merely a bit of nervousness now and then, an occasional doubt, that persistent question as to whether or not I’m really an artist.

Yes, I am an artist. Part of my objective as an artist is to paint serene landscapes, ones that give viewers a sense of peace, a respite from the world, an opportunity to take a deep breath and simply appreciate the beauty of the world. I guess that’s my way of dealing with “art and anxiety”.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH IT?

 

 

47 Comments

  1. After reading your post about imposter syndrome I read another one on the same subject. I’m not sure I understand it because when I feel like I don’t fit in with a group I just leave. There’s a lot of psych that I don’t understand. As for anxiety, I had plenty in the past but have eliminated most of it from my life and feel much better. I can understand how it made me into an artist from early childhood. I don’t feel like it’s showing up in my paintings unless I want to put anxiety into my painting. I think if I had the support I needed as a kid I never would have become and artist. And it is possible to draw from those experiences to make my art more relatable. Like, if my life had been a bowl of cherries my art might be weak. It’s something you can draw from when it’s in your past to give meaning and depth in your paintings. I’d put it like this, if you don’t have any dark colors in the painting the light doesn’t show up. Use your darks and the light is noticeable. I hope that makes sense.

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    1. That’s a beautiful way to express it! Yes, we have to have some “tension”. It’s all part of the process of homeostasis in our physical bodies, too. If we were in “stasis” we would cease to exist. It’s much the same with how creativity works, I think. I did find my research to be both interesting and puzzling. We need conflict and anxiety in order to create art, but then we can use art to eliminate stress and anxiety. Hmmm… well, maybe it does make sense in some way. For me, I just don’t like “anxious art”. I want art that is peaceful, meditative, and serene. But there’s a place for it all, right?

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      1. Right! I don’t want to express any anxiety most of the time but when I do modern art I use it more because modern is more about expressing your feelings. I don’t enjoy looking at the problems of others in art as much as I enjoy seeing the beauty of nature in a painting. That is true and ironic about needing conflict to create and then creating helps the bad feelings go away. I often think how my life might have been better if I had the support of my family. They say family is everything but not in my case, and that makes me sad that I missed out on something so important. I could have been a great doctor or something. Instead, I can do art, which is rewarding but not profitable. And I think it gave me a better perspective as far as not being hung up on money or possessions but being happy having just enough to pay the bills. All that crap shows up in my art but the viewer isn’t aware of it if I don’t talk about what it is.

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      2. You could have been a great doctor or something else… but would you have been happier? I think we’re happiest when we’re who we are, and you are definitely an artist. I think, too, that our feelings do come out in our art in different ways, maybe ways we don’t even consciously recognize.

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      3. Yeah, you always have to consider that being a doctor might be very stressful too. That’s right about it all coming out in your art even though you’re not doing it on purpose.

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      4. Stress is part of life, no matter what we do. I think we’re fortunate that art gives us a lot of tools to help us cope. Sometimes art itself is anxiety-provoking (for me, at least), but other times it can be soothing, especially when I can sit outside and sketch.

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      5. As an adult, I see “family support” much differently than in the past. Growing up, I was pushed and prodded by family, but not necessarily in the right directions. I don’t think I could say that I really had much, if any, “family support” then. Now, though, family is different. It’s not “an older generation” now. I am the “older generation” in the family. I now draw emotional support and encouragement from my children and grand-children, and I hope I’m able to give back a bit in return.

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      6. 😄. That’s great to break the cycle and give what you didn’t receive. I never had any proactive support from family, at best indifference, except for a great connection with one younger brother. I am now finding it through friends and here :).

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      7. You know, I think you’ve hit on something very important… how our online connections can step up and provide support and encouragement. It’s true. I remember how hesitant I was when I first started this blog five years ago. I figured “real artists” would laugh at my childish attempts. Instead, I found lots of good advice, made lots of new friends, and received a great deal of emotional support.

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      8. Yeah! That’s an interesting perspective there, because I started my blog to write about mental health, so it’s been that for me since I started. There’s definitely a good community of people writing about mental health who are amazingly supportive :). Some of those post their art, too, and it’s always great to see. There’s definitely some overlap between art/creativity in general and mental/emotional health!

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      9. That is something I experienced too! I helped my x boyfriend when he got MS. My depression went away! He said this is a side of me he never saw before. Then he died and it seriously messed me up for a while. But I’m ok now.

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      10. Yeah, it was pretty bad for him. I’m glad I could make myself useful. Thanks. If more depressed or angry people would try to help someone who is worse off than them it would solve a lot of society’s problems. If it’s someone you know that makes it easier.

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      11. Yes, that definitely has a place in making people feel empowered and taking them outside of themselves for a while. It can be really profound. I’ve never been short of energy, even when feeling worst— I’ve desperately needed something to do with it and with all the time.

        Some people are robbed of energy by depression, so I guess it would vary, but as a general thing it’s good :). I completely agree on its importance in relation to societal problems. It seems so painfully obvious in fact.

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      12. I guess everyone responds to depression in their own way and then the person that is sick or needs some type of help also has depression and anger, but if you can help it’s a good feeling. Sometimes all you have to do is sit there and listen to their stories. Then there’s practical things you can do like cleaning up for them or cooking etc. But you can get rejected because of their pride or their different hangups or their kids. Then they croak and it’s maddening but the experience was worth it. I was happy for 6 months. Then nuts for 6 months after he died. There were a lot of lessons in there for me. I’d do it again.

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      13. Thanks. He died a horrible scary death that I could have prevented but his kids wanted me out of there because they wanted him to go to a nursing home so they could have his house. I was outraged. He was in his late 40s. I could have bought a house if I wanted one. That was a long time ago.

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      14. I can relate to what you’re saying. My older sister went through a somewhat similar situation with her ex-husband’s adult children who wanted her out of their way. A lot of bad things happened, and at one point she was so ill that she was in hospice care. Funny thing, really, how quickly she recovered once she got away from the family. She is now divorced and in independent living in a retirement community.

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      15. I guess it happens more often than we hear about. I didn’t go to his celebration of life in Richmond or the service they had in Vermont because I thought I might fight with them and I never talked to them after that. I’m glad your sister recovered and is ok now. Those stupid kids of his. There’s a good reason to avoid a relationship in the future.

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      16. Yes, she’s much better off now. In a way, it was sad, though. She and her husband really loved one another, and in no way was she “after his money”. He was getting a bit senile, so his children were able to wrap him around their thumbs, so to speak. Growing old can be a difficult time, and having selfish children destroy a loving relationship … well, it was sad. Now, let’s be thankful that you’re OK, and my sister is OK. 🙂

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  2. I think the type of art that we choose to do is based on purpose as much as feelings. And I agree that there is a place and purpose for almost every type of art.

    For example, if I’m making a greeting card for someone’s birthday, I’m not going to put anxiety-ridden images on it, even if I’m anxious. And if I’m anxious about that, chances are it’s because I’m playing the “what do I do/what if I make a mistake/imposter syndrome” game within my own mind. But by contrast, if I’m absorbing anxiety from the outside world, and it won’t leave me alone, I usually need to pull out my smashbook or a sketchbook or art journal and “vomit” up whatever anxiety comes out and then journal about it, so that therapy can help me move past the distress. Then, I can be calm and relaxed and produce that kind of art. In my opinion there are two kinds of stress/anxiety. Good stress pushes you to create and produce. Bad stress buries you so that you can’t get anything done. It’s usually a good idea to know which type of anxiety you’re coping with before you sit down to do art, so that you can match the mood to the purpose of the project.

    And as a side-note, “anxious art” is often political or social as much as personal. So, even if you do put a disturbing image out in the world for everyone else to see, it could be for a good reason. It might be meant open some eyes to disturbing social conditions that need changing, or to teach empathy, just like how writers write novels about poverty, abuse, and other dark subjects to educate people about this aspect of the human condition and promote change. I believe balance between dark and light is necessary in most things in life, even in art. Art can show us both the horrors and the beauty of life, and that awareness of both is what helps us remember we can and must be wise with our present reality.

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    1. Excellent points, Melody. You’re right about “good stress” and “bad stress”. Even with stress I guess we have to find the right balance. I’ve sometimes compared it to the tension on a sewing machine. We need enough to hold the stitches in place. Too loose, and all we have is jumbled, disastrous mess or thread. Too tight and it puckers and breaks. I agree, too, that anxious art can be social or political. I think back to the “Faces of Summer” I worked on last year about this time and the statement I was making when I painted the black child — “Eyes That Have Seen Too Much”. I was so angry at the world, having heard about another child being shot. Even though I didn’t say, “Hmmm, I think I’m going to paint something to show my feelings,” all those feelings came out when I began exploring the prompt idea. I don’t even remember now what the prompt word was. but whatever it was it served as a catalyst and allowed me to release those emotions.

      I do admire activist artists — those whose work promotes a specific cause like the artists who paint in support of preserving African animals and the environment. I like to think of my own art as promoting environmental awareness in some way. I know that sometimes art has to be “anxious, ugly, and painful” to make people wake up, but I also want to think that we can embrace social causes and still create beautiful art.

      It’s much the same with writing. Yes, we need conflict in writing, of course, and it’s good that writers have used their stories to show us problems we should address. Even there, though, I like stories that end with hope, with ideas on how to create a better future, with some expression of goodness along with all the evil.

      For me, “bad stress” isn’t so much from “anxious feelings” as it is from feeling overwhelmed. If I’m too busy, have too many projects going on, or am trying to accomplish too many different things at once, that’s when I get flustered and stressed out. I’ve been feeling a bit of that lately between the flooding in the studio, having our new cat, and keeping up with art clubs, trips to visit my sister, and a lot of different doctor and dental appointments. Every time I think things will settle down, something else gets added to the schedule. It has left me a bit frustrated. I really need to get back to my easel, but I need to relax and unwind a bit before I can do it with a positive mindset.

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      1. I remember that child’s portrait you did. That is the perfect example of activist art. The emotion in it is why I remember it.

        And yes, peaceful scenery can carry strong emotion, too. I think some of my favourite emotional landscapes are Monet’s garden paintings. I could get lost in them and feel very much at peace. So, I think the world needs both to cure what ails us. (literally)

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      2. Yes. I agree. BTW, the arboretum the art club visited has a “Monet’s Garden” area, and I can’t wait to spend more time there. It was having some construction work being done when we visited. The bridge had plastic sheeting and scaffolding around it — so I didn’t take photographs. I’m looking forward to going back once the construction is finished so I can sit there and paint with my gansai.

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      3. It’s been open for some time apparently, but since the art club trip was my first time there, I didn’t know anything about it. They even have his “blue gardening shed” and there are statues of him painting. I’ll have to check with the arboretum to find out when their maintenance/repairs will be completed. I want to go back ASAP and spend time with Monet. 🙂

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I can’t take credit for the suggestions, however. They come only as the result of the research I was doing. I think they are helpful ideas, especially keeping a daily sketchbook or journal. I think it’s always good for us to stay “in touch” with what we’re feeling.

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      1. I am a musician and a teacher and I am thinking this morning about how to do a musical version of the list. We are so enslaved to learning how to express what others have written on the page. My students will be experimenting and exploring this week 😃 Not at all sure how this will go but I am excited about finding out. Thanks 🙏

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      2. Oh, that is an awesome idea! I think the same ideas could easily “be transposed from one key to another” — and adapted for use with music students.

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      3. Yes! I have already come up with 6 different prompts. I think I will have them draw out of a hat and that will be their creativity assignment for the week. We shall see. I am sure there will be some who love it and others who hate it.

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  3. I feel you. I go through anxiety all the time. It’s interested how you chose Henri Rousseau for your mood. I have admired his work as well. I also found it surprised that art and anxiety can lead to unexpected art. But I believe it will help. Maybe I’ll try it, too.

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