Creative Ways to Process Negative Feelings

Posted on: September 6th, 2019 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

Are you artistic? Do you draw or sing or write or cook or sculpt? Writing is about as artistic as I get. Do you think it is helpful to use creating as a way of processing hurts or is it better just to escape in another world? Do you write about your laments and regrets or pen wild fiction? Do you draw what troubles you or conjure up scenes of beauty regardless of where you’re at emotionally?

Harvard academics Jennifer Drake and Ellen Winner got 80 students to watch distressing movies with scene of torture and murder. Next the students were given a sheet of paper and colouring pencils and were put in two different groups. The first group was told to vent out their negative feelings about the movie and draw something about it. The second group were told to distract themselves and just draw a house.

The group who were told to distract themselves and draw a house were able to control their feelings and overcome their bad mood much more quickly than the group who vented or focussed on the unhappy film. This finding was consistent with previous research. In fact any activity that is mentally demanding like doing maths problems, learning a new language or playing music can work to stop obsessive thoughts or negative feelings.

When you think about this, it goes totally against art therapy programs, which tells us to use art to process negative feelings. I do believe that we all need to deal with unresolved negative feelings. If you have issues from your past at some point you need to deal with them. Question why this makes you so unhappy, find some answers and move on. This is often not a happy process, but a long difficult process. Art therapy can be helpful at this time.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy involves the use of creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring, or sculpting to help people express themselves artistically and examine the psychological and emotional undertones in their art. They produce art focussed on what is troubling them. With the guidance of a credentialed art therapist, clients can “decode” the nonverbal messages, symbols, and metaphors often found in these art forms, which should lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behaviour so they can move on to resolve deeper issues. Art therapy is founded on the belief that self-expression through artistic creation has therapeutic value for those who are healing or seeking deeper understanding of themselves and their personalities. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists are trained to understand the roles that color, texture, and various art media can play in the therapeutic process and how these tools can help reveal one’s thoughts, feelings, and psychological disposition. Art therapy integrates psychotherapy and some form of visual arts as a specific, stand-alone form of therapy, but it is also used in combination with other types of therapy. Mental health professionals and experts believe that art therapy has many benefits, providing a safe way to increase your self-esteem and overcome your emotions, helping you to take control of your life and get to know and understand you.

Art can also be escapist

However at other times of our life, we just need some escapism. We need time to dislocate ourselves from the troubles of the world and our work place and even our families. We just need some happy distracted time and this is okay.

In a new article in the journal Art Therapy, academics from the University of West England describe how they designed two controlled experiments, with about 50 volunteer participants in each study, to find out how colouring affects the way people think. 

The volunteers, who were all university undergraduates, were asked to either spend 20 minutes reading or 20 minutes coloring. Half of the participants started with reading, the other half colored first, but at the end of the experiment each person had done both. 

Participants also answered questions to indicate their current mood, levels of anxiety, mindfulness, and creativity. They took these surveys at three different points during the experiment: before starting, in between tasks, and at the very end. 

The tests used for this were established tests that other researchers have also used in similar experiments, so they give results that can be compared with other studies or different points in time. Numbers are used to rank emotions, such as how anxious someone feels. By giving people the same test before and after their tasks, the researchers were able to compare the scores that participants had assigned themselves, and see how they changed after different activities. They found that, compared to reading, coloring reduced anxiety and improved mindfulness, as measured by the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale.

Colouring calms

This finding is not only encouraging for people who just like colouring in, but it also validates the use of coloring books in therapy settings to calm people.

Does it matter what kind of picture you’re coloring in? The repetitive patterns of mandalas are often suggested to be calming, but this study does not give enough info to say whether that is really a factor. They used mandalas in this study because that was the type of coloring activity that other research studies had also used.

The paper does reference a few other studies that have tried to figure out which kind of pictures you should be coloring in, but the results of those were not conclusive, and didn’t all show the same results.

Art releases dopamine

Other studies show that the making of art stimulates the release of dopamine. This chemical is released when we do something pleasant, and it basically makes us feel happy. An elevated level of this neurotransmitter can be very useful if you are fighting anxiety or depression.

You can use your artistic outlet to escape or get to know yourself better. You really just need to ask yourself what you need, escapism or self-knowledge – the rest is up to you.


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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