Centering through Art

By Dr. Huma Durrani

Life changing, earth shattering, epiphenous, dystopian…the past few months have personified one or the other realities for most of us. In order to adapt to the ‘new normal’, we ‘ve been shaken out of our comfort zones and have had to let go of recognizable notions of life, involuntarily opening ourselves to the disequilibrium of an unfamiliar future. No one has been spared, we are all in this together.

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted us not only at a collective level but also at a deeply personal level, encompassing the entirety of our minds, bodies and souls. Majority of us have had to tap into our innermost resources to cope with our distinct and cumulative realities. Some of us have resorted to familiar practices that have proven beneficial to us in the past, whereas some are venturing into unchartered territories compelled by the need for grounding, mental clarity, and the search for meaning.

Amongst the multitude of online posts, articles, news headlines, memes, TikTok videos and whatever not, there are plenty of tear jerkers, silver liners, doomsday scenarios and comedic reprieves.  However, contemplative moments of silence in these long days of isolation are often laced with nagging thoughts and a heavy knot of anxiety in the pit of the stomach asking ‘what next’?

At times like these, creative expression can come to the rescue. Armed with the magic of art materials that can regulate the anxious brain through texture, rhythm, movement, color and form, art making encompasses the entire range of the human sensory experience.

Making art for therapeutic purposes does not require any artistic skills. What is needed is the intention to submit to the inherent quality of an art material and allow it to dictate the process of art making. Also, a creative product should not necessarily be the end goal of the exercise since the process of making art it is at times more important than the product itself.

Different art materials have specific qualities inherent in them that facilitate grounding, emotional regulation and expression. Art psychotherapists are professionals who are trained to harness these qualities in service of their client’s mental well-being and are clinically trained to draw from various psychological theories to aid reflection and insight into artmaking process and resulting product.

Hence, for those who are keen to explore artmaking beyond just ‘a therapeutic activity”, it is recommended to see a credentialed art psychotherapist who can take their artmaking to a deeper level where healing and resolution for specific issues can take place.

Whether one chooses to make art at home or in session with an art therapist, there is nothing to stop one from benefitting from art making. Especially nowadays when we are most in need for connection with our inner selves and are required to be grounded more than ever, any kind of art based, creative activity including music, drama, dance and movement is bound to have a favorable outcome.

For my part, I highly recommend maintaining an art journal, using any size of sketchbook or loose paper, and two or three basic art materials such as pencils/markers, paints and chalk or oil pastels. Whether skilled at art or not, engage with the material by doodling, smudging, coloring, scribbling and sketching, using brushes, fingers or hands.

Making art and tapping into the qualities of art materials will help calm the parasympathetic nervous system which is the regulatory mechanism of the brain that may be in overdrive these days. Creative expression will also tap into the limbic system which is the seat of our emotional brain and give voice to emotions that may not be accessible to words or even our consciousness minds.

PS. Resistive art materials like pens, pencils and markers can be used for repetitive mark making, doodling, scribbling, coloring in, all of which can lessen anxiety. The more fluid mediums such as paint, or the softer, fragile materials like pastels are more emotive in nature and can tap into deep emotional content that may not be accessible to words. The emotionality of paint and heightening of arousal caused by its’ use may be contained by the earthiness of clay which is heavy and malleable.