Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Art Therapy


I have already posted about creativity being associated with mental illnesses.

If you are one of those people struggling with a psychiatric disorder, art therapy might be something you will want to try. You already have a statistical advantage of being able to creatively express yourself, and you have to do something in order to start feeling better, and mood diaries (as helpful as they are and you shouldn’t stop doing any other homework you are currently doing) and cleaning the cat box can get dull pretty quick. As well, as your condition improves, you will need to add more activities to your schedule in order to keep your mind healthy and active.

The creation of an artistic piece of work can be emotionally difficult or it can be a relaxing process. It has been my experience that artists using a realistic approach tend to receive more positive effects of the process. I believe this has to do with the concentration and focus needed for such art working as a sort of distraction; if the mind is occupied trying to get the texture of a tree just right, there isn’t a lot of room left for depressive thoughts.

But if you aren’t skilled in realism, you can still enjoy your hobby/profession without having to be tormented by negative emotions during the process. And if you aren’t trained in any art form, you can use art as a cognitive behavioural exercise.

You get to choose whatever medium you like. Even if you are an established artist, I think it is healthy to use a variety of methods. This break from routine and structure not only alleviates the boredom many people with depression and BPD complain of, but also takes you out of your usual thinking patterns to learn new ways of seeing things.

The project is what I call ‘what-if’ art. Whatever it is you are working on, writing, painting, collage, instead of using your current emotion as the driving (or overruling) force, ask yourself, “What would this object/thought/feeling look like if my depression/confusion/disappointment wasn’t overshadowing it?”

Already at this point, before you’ve even started working, your depression is probably telling you that that point of view is a disillusioned lie and you shouldn’t even entertain the thought of it because will do more damage than good. Ignore it as much as you can. If you practice mindfulness or if you have dissociative abilities (I do not recommend acquiring pathological dissociation, but separating yourself from something painful is sometimes the best approach; just as long as you don’t ignore the problem indefinitely), you will likely be able to completely override the depressive thoughts.

Do whatever you need to in order to keep yourself focused on the positive feeling while you work – put on inspirational music, set up the lighting however best suits the positive feeling, work outside, keep a cup of coffee beside you. When you notice depressive thoughts resurfacing stop working, take a few breaths, listen to the music, and concentrate on that positive stimulus guiding your work. You may have to do this many times, but the more you practice the less time it will take to refocus.

When you are done, the depressive thoughts might return and they might even be worse than before you started your art project. But this is just the depression’s way of trying to convince you it had always been right, you were wrong to think of anything else, and that you shouldn’t ignore its warnings again. DO NOT LISTEN TO IT. And do not listen when it tries to tell you that what you’ve made is inadequate.

That’s easier said than done, and you may find it quite painful to look at this ‘beautiful lie’ you’ve created, but the very fact that it exists means that it isn’t a lie. And you didn’t create it from a lie, only from how you would feel without the depression distorting your perceptions. What you have created is a something beautiful, something that came from you. Even if you’re not an artist you will be able to see the beauty in your work, as will others (I also encourage you to share your creations with others. If you have a small social circle, you can post images online).

I myself have more manic paintings than I know what to do with, but it’s the ‘what-if’ paintings that other people find most appealing. I think that is indication of the truth of beauty, because your depression can’t control what other people see and think. External validation isn’t necessary, but it does help when your own perceptions become muddled.

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