You awaken in the morning, and begin your day. You calculate and organize steps in your mind, perhaps during a shower, a morning work-out routine, or over a cup of coffee. With anticipation, you prepare for what lies ahead, picking apart the possibilities that coincide with the day’s events. It is then, during those solitary moments of reflection upon an unknown future, that you feel the sudden force, like a fist colliding with your sternum—it is breath-taking, unbearable. Your heart begins racing, the room starts whirling, and a sensation comes over you, akin to a ghost leaving a body. You are floating now, just above your physical form, sending you into a state of pure, unbridled fear; you’re having a panic attack.
Within just a few moments of anticipation, preparing for stresses that may or may not be realized, you have become an unwilling catalyst for hours—maybe days—of unnecessary suffering. When the physical and emotional pains of anxiety and panic disorders take ahold of the entirety of your being, it is difficult to recall what living in reality is like. It becomes a chore to return yourself to your normal state, and everything that happens to you is now something over which to agonize. Receiving a headache from the stress of anxiety and panic is not just a stress headache; now, it is a deadly disease, a brain tumor, or Meningitis. Thinking of taking a stroll through the park becomes the scene for a horror movie, wherein you are robbed, beaten up, or lost. Spending time with a friend or loved one turns into a scenario in which they place you in a spotlight, and judge you relentlessly, despite never uttering a word of contempt.
Anxiety and panic disorders stain the colors in your world an omnipotent black, and often times, it is hard for those who suffer with them to oust the mark and rediscover the beauty in life. Admitting that one has a problem is perhaps the hardest part—the stigma, the denial, and the disbelief from outsiders is often too much to bear. This is what I, and millions of other people around the world must face every single day. We who carry with us the burgeoning weight of such disorders often struggle to rekindle feelings of satisfaction, happiness, and acceptance. What’s more, not everyone can regain what is lost in similar ways. Through understanding our individual, emotional triggers and learning what helps us to return to a state of normality, we can overcome the pain of anxiety and panic disorders in time. During the past two years spent in a state of nearly constant anxiety, visiting, practicing, and engaging in the arts aided in my healing process tremendously. It has reminded me that within us all lies the potential to create. We do not have to give in to the destructive symptoms of anxiety and panic. I have decided to make the case for art, and how creating or experiencing it can offer many of those who suffer with anxiety and panic disorders an outlet for their individual struggles.
Before delving into the science behind art’s ability to help people vanquish their anxiety and panic, let’s consider personal experiences with art. Many of us have enjoyed art, whether or not we realize that it is art at the time. Perhaps we have listened to a favorite song recently. Maybe we have gone on an adventure while watching the new, summer block-buster superhero movie, or while acting out a character role in the latest, must-play video game. Then perhaps we have visited a museum and taken in the beauty of a piece, or have delved into the fantasy world created by our favorite authors. Perchance we’ve been working on a costume project for the next comic book convention, or baking up something delicious for our families to enjoy. In any of those scenarios, we have practiced or enjoyed an art form. Now, let’s think about how we felt when we engaged in or experienced those art forms; were we happy? Were we content, and satisfied? Did we let go of the pressures of the outside world for a while, and find an outlet for our worries? Did we take the time to create something new and exciting, instead of use that time to further dismantle our mental and physical states? If so, then art as helped us to release our grip on our anxiety and panic, if only for a few moments, to allow us to enjoy solace. In my experience when dealing with my individual struggle with anxiety and panic, many of these activities were my only comforts. My love of reading and writing saved me from the torments of my own design, by allowing me to experience a new world or create one all my own. My passion for art allowed me to focus on its inherent beauty, and recall what human beings were capable of when they chose to express themselves through a creative outlet. Yet, despite my assurance that art can and does help one in their quest to overcome anxiety and panic, you cannot and should not just take my word for it. As with all claims, one must provide ample evidence to support them. For a closer look at the evidence, let’s turn to a study published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2010, The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature.
The study begins by outlining the dangers and long-term effects of constantly suffering in poor mental health. Deteriorating mental health not only puts one’s state-of-mind in turmoil, but also puts strain on their physical bodies. If you have anxiety and/or panic disorders, you might be familiar with the painful, short-term effects of them: dizziness, headaches, rapid heart-rate, “not-all-there” experiences, and chest pains—just to name a few from the long list of potential symptoms as outlined by author Edmund J. Bourne in, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 5th Edition —are all associated with these disorders. Though some of these symptoms feel like they could last forever (and symptoms and symptoms’ lengths can vary widely from person-to-person) they vanish over time as we calm down, engage in something distracting, or fall asleep. However, there are more harmful, potentially life-threatening, long-term effects that could be caused by extensive periods spent suffering in the unpredictable cycles of these disorders. According to the study, “Chronic diseases are a nationwide burden, with cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death during the past century and the incidence of diabetes continuing to increase, now affecting more than 20 million Americans. These diseases are associated with psychosocial difficulties such as depression5 and chronic stress, contributing to negative cardiovascular outcomes.” When we over-worry, become panicked, or depressed, we destroy ourselves from within. Although the processes might be slow, there is no telling when or how anxiety and panic can become catalysts for something more serious.
Luckily, this is where self-healing by engaging in artistic behaviors can come in to aide you. From here, the report begins questioning the legitimacy of art’s ability to help the brain heal. A decades worth of studies analyzed various different factors, looking at how art—whether viewing it or practicing it—influences positive functions in the brain. The methods of study included observing adults as they actively created something, such as paintings or drawings, or observing children as they practiced modes of dance therapy, coloring activities, and story-telling. The researchers also examined how the creative process aided in people’s recoveries from physical illnesses, such as cancer. The premiere focus of the study was not only to see how the creative process was therapeutic to those suffering from illnesses, but also the, “expansion of individual and community health-enhancing efforts worldwide and an acceptance of the definition of health as being more than the absence of illness are spurring active investigation into the fundamentals of whole-person approaches to creating and sustaining health. Investigating the relationship between art and health offers some interesting ways to bridge these two important areas of inquiry and perhaps provide timely and important insights into each.” They concluded that there was a connection between mental and physical health and the practice of the arts throughout many cultures and history, and that many people use different forms of art to heal themselves, and release previously harbored feelings out into a physical, touchable thing that can be understood and embraced. While the study admits that these observations of the helpful aspects of art are considerably recent, it also states that, “We have seen positive outcomes for the potential of using art to promote healing in our 4 primary areas of focus.” The study goes on to outline the benefits of music therapy, as it is deemed one of the most popular, far-reaching methods of mental healing for individuals around the world. It expounds upon its potential to ease anxiety, as well as, “restore effective functioning in the immune system partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus.” Addressing the visual arts, the study found that practicing a visual art form allows one to express that which cannot be expressed by word-of-mouth. The potential to, “reconstruct a positive identity,” of oneself can also be found in the practicing of the arts, which is a great way of saying that you can find yourself again, and turn all of the negatives you perceive about yourself into positives. (The study is quite extensive, and if you are interested in more of the study’s findings, you are encouraged to access it here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/)
Having observed the positives of expressing yourself through art, you can recognize it as a chance to bring to life all of the things that weigh heavily upon your mental state. Discovering a new hobby or activity gives you tons of potential. You might realize you have a talent for something previously unknown to you. Anxiety and panic often prevent us from reaching out for, and opening ourselves up to new things. Part of the healing process is rediscovering that bravery, the willingness to take a chance on something new. Just as we go for a jog or stick to a healthy diet to keep up our physical health, we should find the time for positive mental health exercises to make us just as mentally healthy as we can be physically. So, let’s say you’ve always wanted to create a comic, but were always afraid of not being, “good enough.” Now that you know drawing can help release those stressors by allowing you to express yourself, you can find peace in knowing that you are allowing yourself to heal mentally. No one is asking you to be the next Leonardo da Vinci—or, perhaps more appropriately, the next Alan Moore; you should at first discover the beauty in creating something all your own. If you plan to pursue something like comic book art as a career, you can cross that line later in your journey. (After all, part of the healing process in anxiety and panic disorders is coming to terms with acceptance, and taking things as they come without anticipating the worst.)
For now, you should find the fun in making your own story and artwork, and see the pride in being able to say, “Yes, I made this with my own two hands, and I saw it to the end.” That sense of accomplishment and knowing that you can finish something will see you through even your roughest days. But maybe creating art yourself isn’t your bag; no worries! There is still plenty of art you can enjoy without having a hand in its process. Movies, music, books, and visual artworks have the potential to take you on an emotional journey, and allow you to experience something otherworldly for a while. They also have the ability to allow you to look inside yourself, and ask, “How does this make me feel, and why?” The capability to ask yourself why and what makes you feel a certain way can lead to you possibly discovering and coming to terms with the origins of your over-worrisome behaviors. You’ll learn too, that you are not the only one out there struggling to find meaning and purpose in such a grandiose place as planet Earth. Artists and writers of all kinds have struggled with this concept since time began, but have used art as a means to express to the things they hold deep within, even if those emotions or ideas weren’t always, “accepted,” or, “understood.” Though you might not have a mind to create art, what you can take away from exploring art is the courage to be who you are as an individual, and to take risks and discover your own meaning in life, a life that does not have to be controlled by the destructive, intrusive nature of anxiety or panic disorders.
Of course, not all methodologies of managing anxiety and panic are set in stone—the disorders themselves, as of today, have no real, “cures,” rather they have the prospect to be managed—and even the study we addressed earlier admits that there is no guarantee that practicing art will help someone overcome mental health disorders. Truly, the way in which someone manages and controls their anxiety, panic, and depression is not singular. There are many constructive ways in which a person can manage their mental health, just as there are many exercises one can do to tone one’s muscles. Everyone who suffers with the disorders learns what helps them overcome the issues caused by living in states of emotional chaos. Sometimes, it helps to do many things in conjunction with one another in order to reach your desired state-of-being. For example, in my case, it has taken me many sessions of therapy and refocusing practices in order to reach my current, manageable state. For some, this might mean using medications along with meditation or spiritual practices. Any direction you go yields to your personal health and comfort levels. (Of course, always seek the advice of a medical expert to help you with your personal management plan). However, I do not think it is too bold or too much to ask to give art a try.
In his book, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 5th Edition, Edmund J. Bourne, PhD, writes, “Your life has a creative purpose and mission. There is something creative that is yours to develop and offer… Each of us has at least one personal form of creativity that can give our life meaning and purpose.” If these statements are to be understood, then it is in our nature to be driven, and to find purpose. However, this purpose should not be the obliteration of one’s self, but the creation of it. How and when you come to the conclusion—the, “meaning,”—is specific to you. Do not be afraid or intimidated by the world’s criticisms; no matter what you do, someone will have something to say. In time, you will learn acceptance. As long as you pursue what makes you feel accomplished and healed mentally, you cannot go wrong. Something is out there, waiting for you to uncover it from its hiding place. There is an empty sketchbook waiting to be filled, an open beach waiting to be photographed, or a happenstance waiting to become a part of a story. So if upon waking in the early morning hours you are greeted by the agonizing familiarity of anxiety, depression, or panic, stop for a moment. Look out your window; what do you see? The golden Sun has yet to break forth from the east, and it prepares to cascade into the vast, never-ending blue sky. Embrace that moment, and take ahold of its impermanence, instead of exacerbating your worries and fears. Do not get anxious; the shower will be there, the coffee will brew, and your work-out will not miss you for too long. A new day has dawned, and you are given a chance. Let yourself become inspired. Absorb it, as your skin would the morning Sun. Pick up a paint brush and a canvas, a pencil and paper, or a fresh journal, take a deep breath, and create.