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Art Therapy: Hands-On Activities that Soothe the Soul

art therapy activities that soothe soul

Having originated in the field of psychology, art therapy is a form of expression that’s designed to help individuals become more aware of their emotions. Soothing activities like writing, painting, and drawing have the potential to unlock certain feelings in a person, so they can better manage and discuss their emotions in a constructive way, much like therapy itself. 

These activities can also be used as relaxation techniques, helping people find relief from stress, anxiety, and even depression. An art therapist will guide the patient through these activities, providing a safe, controlled environment where the patient feels comfortable expressing themselves.

If you’re interested in art therapy, you can sign up for art therapy classes or groups in your area or try some of these activities on your own. You might discover new feelings you didn’t know existed, or you may prefer dealing with your emotions using a creative outlet, as opposed to talking directly with another individual. Use these hands-on activities to learn more about your emotions. 

Create a Visual Journal

Keeping a journal is a great way to actualize your emotions. Whether you like to record your thoughts and emotions or just do a quick sketch, a journal is essentially a blank canvas that you can use however you like. Just keep it in your bag and, if you find yourself looking for a way to relax, you can quickly pull it out and start documenting your feelings with words or pictures. 

If you don’t like the idea of writing down everything you’re thinking or feeling, try drawing a picture instead. As long as you have writing instruments on hand, you can start visualizing your emotions on the go with pictures. It doesn’t matter what you draw as long as you’re enjoying yourself. Try drawing a funny cartoon or an intricate design to take the edge off after a stressful day. 

male artist working on painting

Paint or Draw Your Feelings

Sometimes, our feelings can get the better of us. We might distract ourselves or ignore our feelings if they become too powerful, but our emotions often aren’t as scary or as powerful as we imagine them to be. If we take the time to identify and process our emotions, we realize we have nothing to fear. Saying our emotions out loud isn’t always easy, especially if we don’t feel comfortable sharing intimate feelings with a therapist or a mental health professional. 

That’s why visualizing your feelings with art can be so gratifying. You can acknowledge your feelings without worrying about embarrassing yourself, using the wrong word, or accidentally offending another person. All you have to do is relax and focus on how you’re feeling as you paint, draw, sketch, or illustrate your feelings in some way. Try not to put pressure on yourself throughout the exercise. There are no wrong answers. It’s just about expressing yourself freely.

Write a Letter or a Postcard That You’ll Never Send

If the source of your anger, anxiety, or depression is rooted in your feelings for another person, such as a family member, colleague, or friend, try writing a letter or a postcard to that person but don’t actually drop it in the mailbox. Knowing that this person will never see what you’ve written takes the pressure off your emotions. You don’t have to worry about angering or upsetting the other person with your words. This exercise is about giving yourself a chance to think out loud as you figure out what you’d like to say to this person.

write a letter quote

You might take this opportunity to clear the air about what happened between you and this person in the past or to address the problematic nature of your relationship with this person. Even though you don’t plan on mailing out this letter or postcard, addressing this person directly can help you make sense of your feelings. You might discover words or feelings you didn’t know were there, helping you see this person and your relationship in a new light. Having recognized your feelings, you’ll be better prepared to have a healthy, open conversation with this person in real life.

Find Inspiration in Music or Nature

Drawing or painting your feelings isn’t always easy. If you’re not used to doing these kinds of activities, art therapy can seem like a waste of time or a daunting task, but these activities are about relaxing and having fun. If you’re having trouble getting in the mood to paint or draw, try adding some music into the mix to get the ball rolling. Music can help reduce stress and even change brain functioning to the same extent as medication. 

Whether you’re a connoisseur of classical music or you love to rock out to the Top 40, find a song that makes you feel at ease and let your mind wander as you start to explore your feelings with paint, ink, or some other medium. This can make the exercise feel much less daunting, especially if it’s your first time. 

If music doesn’t relieve your stress, you can also try doing some of these exercises in nature. Whether it’s sitting on the bench in your local park or your front porch, being outside can help relieve stress, giving you the mental clarity you need to try a new activity like art therapy. If you’re not in the mood to draw or paint, changing your environment can unlock all kinds of new possibilities.

portrait of woman with pen and paper

Visualize Your Biggest Fear

Once you have some experience with art therapy, you can move on to more challenging exercises that address specific needs and concerns. If you’ve been afraid of something in your life, such as asking for a raise at work, getting back in touch with a family member, or having a tough conversation with a loved one, try visualizing your fear by making an image out of it. You can paint, draw, or even sculpt your biggest fear, so you don’t have to keep it bottled up inside. 

Externalizing this frightening situation or outcome just might give you the courage you need to face your fears. Keeping these fears to yourself can make them seem more terrifying than they are in real life. Once you see your biggest fear, you’ll realize it’s not as scary as you once imagined. 

Create a Positive Self-Portrait

Art therapy can also be used to address issues of self-esteem. Visual art activities such as painting, drawing, and sculpture improve well-being by decreasing negative emotions and improving positive ones. One way to improve your self-image is to create a self-portrait where you focus on the aspects of yourself you value the most. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, so take this opportunity to shine a light on the best parts of yourself. This might include personal traits like empathy, work ethic, and ambition, and other skills and hobbies like playing music, studying history, participating in sports, or even simply being a team player.  

creating a self portrait graphic

You can visualize engaging in activity that you enjoy or one that you excel at, spending time with the people you love or doing something that gives you a sense of pride such as giving back to your local community. 

If you’re having trouble coming up with an idea for a positive self-portrait, remember that trying something new like painting or drawing and even exploring art therapy as a vehicle for self-expression are things to be proud of. Take this as a sign that you’re capable of change and, if you put your mind to it, you can tackle any challenge that comes your way. Look for the positive in life and visualize yourself as you want to be seen.

You can also try doing a portrait of your future self. Imagine where you see yourself in five or ten years, such as where you’d like to live, what kind of job you’d like to be doing, and how you see yourself changing over time. This will help you focus on a positive vision of the future, so you can start turning your dreams into reality. 

Make a Collage

If you don’t have the best pens, or painting seems like it’s outside your wheelhouse, you can also try using different pre-made materials and images to create a collage. Cutting up old magazines and repurposing the images, using felt, spare fabric, or even old pieces of clothing, can be therapeutic in more ways than one. You can get rid of some of the clutter around your house and use it to make something new. Tearing up paper and other materials can also help you release some stress, anger, or anxiety. 

Reassemble these images or materials on another piece of paper, some wood, a sheet of cardboard, or a blank canvas. You’ll find yourself reacting instinctually to the different images, colors, and textures as you give them new meaning. Sometimes rearranging something that’s already there is easier than starting a painting or drawing from scratch. 

Embrace Abstraction

zentangle lines and pen on white paper

As you try many of the exercises on this list, it’s important to remember that the final image doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact, it doesn’t need to represent anything at all. Some thoughts, feelings, and memories are too painful to visualize exactly as you see them, so don’t be afraid to embrace abstraction. You can use swirling lines, shapes, and colors to bring your emotions and experiences to life without having to capture every detail realistically. Sometimes, abstraction is the best way to deal with negative emotions like grief, depression, and anger. 

As rewarding as art therapy can be, remember that this work isn’t meant to be critiqued. You’re free to create any image that comes into your head. You can be objective without putting too much pressure on yourself, so relax and see where the experience takes you.

Make an Image or Object for Someone Else

The act of giving something to someone else can be a truly rewarding experience. You don’t have to be a grand master at painting to share your work with other people. You never know how much someone might appreciate your artwork. Choose a person in your life that you care about and make them a gift. It could be an abstract painting, a drawing of the two of you, or an object like a sculpture, a box you’ve decorated, or even a homemade candle. This is a great way to show the person how much they mean to you. 

You can also use this exercise to visualize your relationship to this person. Try painting or drawing how you see your relationship. This can be a positive or negative portrait, depending on the person in question. In the end, if you’re not happy with what you’ve made, you’re under no obligation to give them the gift. You can try again or keep the image for yourself if you don’t want to send them the wrong message. 

make an object for someone quote

Create an Image of Your Dreams

Understanding your dreams can help you unlock emotions or aspects of your consciousness that you didn’t know were there. After a good night’s sleep, try painting or drawing your dreams if you can remember them. As we all know, dreams don’t always make sense, and your drawing doesn’t have to make sense either. You might remember a strange room that’s somewhat familiar, people you know, or bizarre experiences that slightly resemble your own. From specific details to the overall atmosphere, visualize anything you can recall about the dream to get a better sense of what’s going on inside your subconscious. 

Learn More About Yourself

Art therapy is a powerful tool that you can use to learn more about yourself. Creating something new can reduce negative emotions like fear, anger, and sadness, while stirring positive emotions like joy, pride, and hopefulness. Simply trying something new can alter your perspective on the world and your life. From painting to collage and everything in between, try one of these art therapy activities to learn more about your emotions and create positive change. 

By visiture

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