Our lives are busy, complicated, and at times overwhelming. Often we can find ourselves in moments of heightened stress, anxiety, or frustration. These feelings can be triggered by specific circumstances or events but can also be triggered by an accumulation of stressors or poor habits. So what can we do to manage this? Mindfulness practices help teach ourselves how to engage in healthy coping strategies that when done as part of a routine can actually help prevent the occurrence of stress and anxiety in “trigger” moments. Breathing, mediation, and yoga are the most common associations with mindfulness; however, they are not the only ways to engage our brain. Art is another way we can train our brains to react to triggers differently.
Mindfulness is aimed at engaging our brain in intentional and thoughtful behaviors to disrupt our brain’s fight or flight response to stressors. By consistently participating in mindful exercises we rewire the way our brain responds, shifting from stress and anxiety to examination, reflection, and thoughtful action. Art making is a tool that can be used to train our brains to slow down and analyze while also providing a physical outlet for our thoughts and feelings.
Creating your own practice
You don’t need to be a practicing artist or even consider yourself good at art to utilize artmaking as a wellness tool. The focus in this context is about being present in the moment, experiencing the art media, and utilizing the media to represent thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Keeping a visual journal is a great way to start your art as wellness practice. Start by setting aside at least 20 minutes a week to create in your visual journal. You can follow visual journaling prompts, choose a specific art material to experiment with, or just begin making marks on a page. The goal here is to be present and focus on the experience you are having using the art media.
Take some time before you start your artmaking to notice how you are feeling emotionally, spiritually, and physically - start your journaling practice by listing how you are feeling. Choose how you want to engage with your journal that day. After your artmaking, take the time to revisit your list from before or to reflect on the same feelings. Did they change? Over time you will start to notice that your overall mood and outlook on your day will change- this is your brain being retrained!
Including Mindful Art Making in your Curriculum
Art educators can help students to build wellness habits too. Ultimately students are engaging in the same benefits as mindful artmaking when meeting curricular objectives and outcomes however sometimes (and consistently for some students) the pressure of assessment or comparison can override the benefits of getting into the artmaking flow. This is why it is important for Art Educators to include mindful art making into their classroom routines. Just as if you were building your own personal practice, educators need to build in time for students to engage in mindful artmaking.
This could be through the use of a visual journal where students choose prompts from a list, dedicated mindful art making activities, or a choice board of mindful prompts incorporated as early finishing options or as a resource for students in crisis. When introducing a mindful art making activity, take time to engage students in reflection about their day, how they feel, and what is stressful for them. Introduce the activity they will engage in emphasizing the process of creating over the product- this is about spending time making and not making something. At the end of their art making time, lead them through some reflection again focused on how their body and mind feel now after the artmaking experience and point out art as a strategy or tool that can be used when they are feeling stress and anxiety increase. Regular mindful artmaking teaches students to notice their thoughts and feelings along with strategies for what to do when they are experiencing stress and anxiety and the benefit of keeping a mindful routine which can help them prevent and manage moments of crisis.
When we engage in artmaking, no matter what type, our brains react in the same way as if you were to meditate. You may even find that your breathing naturally slows down as you are making art. This is why including artmaking in your wellness repertoire makes sense, so grab some paper and something to make marks with and start creating!
-Anjali Madan Wells, President of Creative Outlets Arts Center and Pre K-12 Visual Art & Dance Content Specialist for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.