Catherine M Harris, ATR-BC, RYT 200
The Benefits of Mindfulness, Art Making, & Art Therapy
Q & A with the The Happy Hour & Catherine Harris
Last month, I had the honor of being invited to participate in a panel discussion on the benefits of mindfulness and creativity with The Happy Hour, a mental wellness studio here in Nashville, TN. On Saturday, July 17th, the studio transformed into a pop-up art gallery, featuring artwork by artist Anne Fletcher. The artwork exhibited reflected the restorative and transformative gift of nature that provided refuge for the artist during a year of pandemic living in 2020. During the exhibit, I sat down with Happy Hour founders Clara Belden and Claire Price to answer a few questions about the inherent and powerful benefits of mindfulness, art making, and art therapy.
Catherine, can you tell us how creating art is a form of mindfulness? How is it therapeutic (i.e. what are the benefits)?
Sure. Art making and really the creative process that leads to it has a natural ability to ground our attention fully in the present moment. Earlier, Claire gave such a beautiful description of mindfulness, speaking to this idea of focusing our attention in the present in a way that’s open and curious.
With that in mind, art making is inherently a mindful activity when you think about it. For one, it’s a very full sensory experience, from the feeling of the supplies in your hands, to the sound the supplies make as you use them, to the visual stimulation of how the image evolves and changes as you work. One helpful aspect of mindfulness can be dropping our awareness into these sensory experiences as a way of bringing our attention to and keeping our attention in the present. This sensory experience of art making can act as an anchor or magnet for our attention so to speak.
Art making is inherently a mindful activity when you think about it.
In addition, we’re using many different parts of the mind when creating art that we don’t normally use in everyday activities. We’re bringing in the logical, problem solving mind by picking different colors or materials and then choosing and planning where to place them on the page. Again, we’re using parts of the mind related to sensory experience which is also closely related to emotional processing and expression. Because of all these areas of the mind that you’re working and stimulating through art making and creativity, there’s literally no space left to think about anything else, such as regrets over past experience or worries over the future that often take us out of the present moment.
For these reasons, I often use the act of art making as an introduction to mindful attention for the clients I work with in my art therapy practice. For many people, sitting still in formal meditation can be very difficult in the beginning, since it’s not a way of being that we’re used to in general. And this practice of bringing our awareness to the present can be especially difficult if that present moment is filled with things like stress, anxiety, depression, or trauma. Thus, grounding our attention in the physical act of making art, so moving our hands, even our bodies through the process, can be a very helpful and effective way to practice this present moment awareness without being overwhelmed by that awareness and what we notice.
Who does art making benefit? Do you have to be an experienced artist (or have some level of artistic ability) to get any benefit out of art making or art therapy?
No, not at all. I work mainly with adults, and this is one of the biggest hurdles I face when discussing the benefits of art therapy and art making in general, comments such as, “Oh, but I’m not an artist” or “I haven’t made art since I was a kid.” In my work, I stress over and over again, that it’s not about how the artwork looks. It’s the process of creation that’s truly beneficial. Which I know is a big shift in mindset when we think about artwork. We’re often so focused on how it looks, is it esthetically pleasing, would I want to hang it in my home, etc. Things like that.
It’s not about how the artwork looks. It’s the process of creation that’s truly beneficial.
And I say that it’s not about how it looks because of what’s happening in the mind and body when we create art. There have been so many research studies, especially in the past two decades, that show through science what we’ve inherently known as artists all along — that art making is beneficial and healing. These studies point to changes in our physiology when we engage in creative acts, such as deeper breathing, lower blood pressure and heart rate, even lower levels of cortisol, one of the hormones related to the stress response. These are all changes that can happen in the moment of creation due to that present moment attention.
In addition, when creating artwork regularly over time, studies show changes in brain structure that are similar to the research we’re seeing on the effects of a regular mindfulness practice. MRI scans of the brain from participants in an 8 week class in art therapy show increased grey matter in the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory, learning, emotional regulation, & self-compassion. So this means that the area of the brain is larger in size and thus more active and functioning at a higher capacity. These scans also show a decrease in grey matter in the amygdala, an area related to activating the fight or flight response. So when this area is smaller, we experience the stress response less frequently and less intently. Both of these changes correlate with individuals’ self-reports of feeling less depressed, less anxious, and an overall increase in sense of well-being from regular participation in creative activities.
This is always fascinating to me, that there are things that we can do that literally change the size and shape of our brains and thus how our minds respond and function. It’s also a really empowering message for me too, that our health is not solely dependent on unchangeable factors like genetics or external situations. That there are things we can do ourselves that have a profound effect for our health and well-being. This is also why I say, it’s not about how our artwork looks. We can experience these benefits from the simple act of creation, whatever the outcome may be.
Outside of your sessions or going to art therapy, what are some tools people can use at home that might help them experience these benefits?
To get over this common hurdle or thought process that “I’m not an artist,” I like to invite people to think of art making as a mindfulness practice and thus apply the same intentions and philosophies that we would with a regular mindfulness practice to art making. We can bring in the quality of non-attachment by letting go of our expectations on the outcome or how it looks. As I said before, dropping into the sensory experience of the act of creation can help us let go of that outcome and focus more on the present moment and our experience of that moment. In doing this, we can also get curious about what we notice about the supplies, how they can be used as well as ourselves and our internal responses to the process. We can also bring this awareness to our thoughts and use this as an opportunity to practice non-judgment as well as compassion towards ourselves as we engage in something new. Bringing in the more helpful self-talk of: “This is something new, and I’m learning. It makes sense that it doesn’t look how I expect it to.” Or, “I’m trying something new during a difficult time, and I can be really proud of myself for taking that step.” Talking to ourselves as we would talk to a dear friend.
Some ideas for how this may look practically in everyday life: If you have children, joining in with them as they create. Children are naturally curious in their actions and use art making as an act of exploration. Perhaps letting them be the guide and teacher, asking what they would do with the supplies and exploring with them. It could be picking out an art supply that interests you and setting out with the intention of playing and exploring with that medium, simply seeing what effects it has on the page as you work with it instead of putting your focus mainly on what you’ll create as the final product. We can almost think of this approach like learning a musical instrument. When we first set out to learn something like the piano, we can’t play a song immediately, but we can practice with scales and learn cords, and eventually, all of that comes together later on down the road.
In addition, as with everything the past year and a half, so much is offered virtually now too. Artists are offering classes and tutorials in their style and technique online. There’s a wonderful website called Skillshare, where you can learn from a catalogue of multiple artists. Through my own business, I also offer monthly workshops that focus on this idea of how to use art making as a regular mindfulness practice. Something like this can be really helpful to bring structure to your practice through having a guide and consistent classes.
I truly believe that we are all inherently creative, and just like mindfulness, this creativity can be an inner resource that can help us find balance, renewed energy, and healing.
I truly believe that we are all inherently creative, and just like mindfulness, this creativity can be an inner resource that can help us find balance, renewed energy, and healing when we turn our attention to it and hone it through regular practice.
As with mindfulness, can art therapy be a catalyst to awareness and expression for individuals? Can it help put some structure around how they are feeling?
Yes, this is the real beauty of art therapy for me, both the value of expression and having different ways to express ourselves. Naming and validating our experience of the moment is so important. Just naming how we feel, before we even do anything to respond, has the power to calm the body’s nervous system. Yet, because of the effects of stress, anxiety, and trauma on the mind and how it functions, it can be really difficult to put into words how we may be feeling in those moments. Art and creativity can still help us express ourselves, even when words fail.
By creating a visual image, we then have something tangible to observe. Seeing your expression of the moment can be really validating in itself (the feeling of “Yes, that’s it.” Or, “You see me. You get it.”) It also produces something to talk about. Having a visual image of how we are feeling puts us in an observer position, which is another aspect of mindfulness, the ability to step back and observe our experience so that we’re not caught up in it and don’t over identify with it. From this place of the observer, it’s easier to see a different perspective, a bigger picture, which makes it easier to be more curious and more compassionate to our experience and ourselves in that experience. All of which fosters the ability to better learn from what we notice and think more clearly about what we need to respond.
We can see these ideas of naming and validating experience as well as responding to our needs in the artwork of this exhibit and in the artist’s comments here today. I can also speak to it personally in my own experience during the pandemic. I’ve probably made more artwork in the last year and a half than I have in a long time. At first, I needed it as a place to express the gravity of the moment in a time that I felt could not be described, explained, or understood solely in words. And then as time went on, it became a way for me to reframe the experience by recognizing the inherent qualities that helped me through this time. My artwork shifted from an outlet of expression of difficult emotions to honoring the qualities I felt I turned to such as resilience, compassion, mindfulness, and determination. In effect, shifting the story from what happened to me, what happened to all of us, to more about how I was able to respond felt really strengthening and empowering as well as hopeful.
Artwork became a way for me to reframe the experience of the pandemic by recognizing the inherent qualities that helped me through it.
This also seems like a good time to clarify the difference between art therapy and simply making art on one’s own. I like to say that art therapy happens in the presence of an art therapist. It’s really about the relationship between the client and the therapist. We just heard about how art and creativity can be innately helpful for our health and well-being. Art Therapy builds upon these natural qualities and benefits of art making and combines that with education and training in mental health. So in that relationship between an art therapist and client, the art therapist is bringing knowledge of different mental health needs like anxiety and depression or trauma along with knowledge of what will be helpful to meet those needs, from the types of art supplies used and what to do with those supplies to how the artwork and the experience of creation can be discussed in order to bring awareness and insight and hopefully relief. My hope is that I’ve conveyed through this Q & A how engaging in creative outlets on a regular basis can be profoundly beneficial, whatever that may look like for you. And long with that, if you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed and like they need more support for mental health needs, art therapy can be a wonderful service to help.