Sometimes words fall short to describe feelings.
For many, the feeling of anxiety is difficult to capture. As a therapist and artist, I’ve seen drawing bridge this gap. Drawing can turn the vague foreboding body sensation of anxiety into something concrete- and once concrete, drawings can help our anxiety feel a little smaller, a little less oppressive, and a little easier to work with.
In this article, you’ll discover a few of my favorite anxiety drawings from my portfolio, as well as information on recognizing anxiety in art, the research-backed benefits of processing anxiety through art, and how to use drawing as a tool to cope with anxiety.
My Portfolio of Anxiety Drawings
Drawing has served as a way to teach about anxiety and process my own anxiety. Anxiety drawings are not just about creating something aesthetically pleasing (In fact, when drawing out the feeling of anxiety, letting go of the need to make something “good” is key to the process). Researchers have found that “a brief period of art making can significantly reduce a person’s state of anxiety.” 1
Instead, drawing out anxiety is about making space for the big feeling, and giving color, contour, and definition to this feeling that can often feel so hard to describe.
Spectrum of Anxiety Coping Drawing
This drawing of a spectrum of anxiety is a doodle I made into help illustrate the difference between letting anxiety control our lives, and harming ourselves by doing too many anxiety exposures too quickly.
Drawing of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generic unflavored anxiety is my nickname for generalized anxiety. Generalized anxiety is anxiety that isn’t rooted in specific fears or concerns. My generic unflavored anxiety drawing is a helpful journaling worksheet made to look like a cereal box.
Learning to Welcome Anxiety: Anxiety Monster Drawing
One of the most effective ways to process anxiety through drawing is to draw how anxiety effects us. On some days it might be a jumble of scribbles, and on others it might be this scrappy, exhausted looking fluff looking for some care and attention. This anxiety drawing welcomes us to listen to our anxiety, pay attention to the message, and have a conversation with it about what our need might be.
Anxiety, Bodies, and Families of Origin Sketch Note
In this sketchnote based on Adam Young’s Podcast, I created a series of word art drawings about the roots of anxiety and how it often flows through families, religions, and bodies. If this paricular sketchnote resonates with you, find the article here: Anxiety, Bodies, and Families of Origin.
Anxiety vs. Fear Drawing
Anxiety is a human emotion that tells our brain we are experiencing fear. While anxiety is valid, it’s a response to anticipation of something might that might happen, while fear is a response to actual perceived danger. Knowing the difference, like I’ve drawn in this doodle, can help us respond appropriately with good self-care.
Anxiety: Choose Your Own Adventure
How we respond to anxiety can shape our experience of processing through anxiety versus making our anxiety worse. In this flowchart, I illustrate two ways to deal with anxiety: ignoring it, or paying attention to it. Through mindful self-care, we can experience improved anxiety. Some people may benefit from drawing their own flowchart on how to deal with their anxiety.
How to Recognize Anxiety in the Drawings of Kids & Adults
Art can help us communicate emotions. For both kids and adults, our feelings, including anxiety, often become visible in our artwork. By looking closely at these drawings, we can learn a lot about ourselves or the people who made them.
Here are some common ways that anxiety shows up in drawings made with pencil, ink, or pastels:
One of the easiest-to-spot signs of anxiety in drawings is shaky lines. Rather than being due to an unsteady hand or lack of artistic ability, these unstable lines may communicate the instability of anxiety. Just as our voices may quiver when we’re nervous or scared, our hands might shake when translating those feelings onto paper.
Heavy, dark lines and chaotic drawings can be indicators of anxiety, and sometimes trauma. Intense representations, especially in multiple drawings over time, can be a way of communicating the chaos of anxiety, trauma, or strong emotions that are difficult to hold.
Extremely detailed art with intricate lines can also be a sign of someone channeling their anxiety into their art. It’s important to note that not all highly detailed artwork springs from anxiety. For many, drawing intricate patterns can be soothing. The focus required to create highly detailed art- especially mandalas or repeating patterns is a healthy and adaptive way to deal with anxiety, and may even be included in a list of coping skills for some people.
Eraser marks can sometimes be a tell of art made by an anxious creator. Anxious drawers might repeatedly stop, erase, and redraw lines more than those who don’t experience anxiety- especially people experiencing overcontrol and maladaptive perfectionism. Most papers leave marks from erasure, especially when an eraser is used repeatedly.
While it’s important not to jump to conclusions based solely on someone’s drawings, especially a single drawing, understanding these ways to recognize anxiety in art can provide valuable insights, especially for parents or caregivers concerned about a child or loved one’s well-being.
A Summary of Academic Research Exploring How Drawing Helps with Anxiety
As an artist and therapist, I’ve had the opportunity to not just make art and use art-based interventions in theraputic work (check out my best therapeutic art ideas here), I’ve resarched just how and why art has therapeutic benefits.
For those curious about how a simple act like drawing can help with anxiety, here’s a quick review of some important research findings on the topic.
- Expression and Distraction. In a study published in The American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that engaging in artistic activities, like drawing, provided individuals with a dual benefit: a means of expression and a form of distraction. Both these factors played a pivotal role in reducing symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) 2.
💡 Hint: Distraction is okay! When we’re on a recovery journey, it can be easy to think we need to press forward all the time. However, times of rest and distraction help us cope and recharge to “do the work.”
- Mindfulness. Another interesting study researched the concept of mindfulness and drawing, and its effects on anxiety and depression. Participants who engaged in drawing reported a heightened state of mindfulness and presence, which is known to combat anxious thoughts. 3
- Neurological Benefits. A study from Frontiers in Psychology took a neurological approach. Utilizing brain scans, researchers observed that drawing activities reduced activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain primarily responsible for fear and anxiety. 4
In other words, drawing isn’t just an act of artistic expression; it’s a scientifically-backed method to help manage and reduce anxiety.
So, whether you consider yourself “good” at drawing or not, picking up that pencil might be a step towards a calmer mind.
The following section may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, these links help make my art sustainable.
Using Drawing as an Anxiety Coping Tool
Whether as a practice of self-care or an intervention used by a therapist in treatment, drawing can be a powerful tool to cope with – and even recover from – anxiety.
Why Drawing Helps: Creativity and Art Making are Forms of Coping Skills
Coping tools are behaviors, reframes, and strategies that help us deal with negative emotion. Drawing, in particular, allows us to externalize and visualize our emotions, which can provide clarity and a sense of relief.
Drawing helps us tell stories. It can be difficult to talk about our emotions, painful memories, or experiences that trouble us. But art makes this easier, 5 helping open up lines of communication that can help us heal.
💡 Hint: some anxious artists may benefit from artmaking on a Buddha Board. This media creates a temporary imprint of a design- naturally erasing in a few minutes. Many anxious people appreciate the forgiveness inherent in this art form, and may be able to more easily access the benefits of artmaking knowing that, good or bad, their art will disappear in a few moments.
Five Drawing Prompts for Addressing Anxiety
✏️ Draw Anxiety: This might sound abstract, but try to visualize what anxiety looks like to you. It could be a tangled web, a dark cloud, or even a chaotic scribble. By putting it on paper, you’re taking the first step to externalize and gain mastery over it.
📊🔎Trigger Tracker: Design a simple chart or diary where you can note specific events, places, or interactions that trigger your anxiety. Over time, this will help you recognize patterns and potentially avoid or mitigate these triggers. Find my trigger tracking worksheet here.
👾 Your Anxiety Monster: Imagine your anxiety as a monster or creature. What does it look like? Is it big or small, dark or colorful? By characterizing it, you can externalize your anxiety, making it easier to confront. Through creating representations of their inner emotions we can closely examine our feelings from a safe distance.
This creative process, along with the resulting artwork, can assist us in developing strategies to handle situations that cause fear. This process and the resulting image may aid us in developing strategies to cope with feared situations, thereby desensitizing us to the fear at hand, and helping us to engage our senses to foster a connection between the mind and the body . 5
🌟 Life Without Anxiety: Imagine a day without anxiety. What would it look like? Where would you be? Who would be with you? Draw this scene. Then get curious about the actionable steps you can take to get from your present reality to the image on the page.
📆 Anxiety Timeline: Create a timeline that starts from when you first felt anxiety until now. Plot out significant events, both good and bad, that have influenced your journey. This can help you see your progress and growth.
Drawing, whether freestyle of through prompts designed to help us engage anxiety, can be a pathway to introspection, understanding, and healing.
Next time you feel overwhelmed, pick up a pen or pencil, and let your emotions flow onto paper. It might surprise you how much insight and relief it can bring.
Top 3 Anxiety Drawing Workbooks Reviewed
Drawing is therapeutic, but guidance in using drawing can help the creative process to be more healing. Recently, I reviewed a number of drawing-and-art-inclusive workbooks for coping with anxiety. Here are the best three workbooks I found for processing anxiety through drawing.
1. The CBT Art Workbook for Coping with Anxiety
- What’s Inside: A mix of art and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques for anxiety.
- Highlight: Combines this manualized therapy approach with art-based activities for a comprehensive approach.
- Get it here via Amazon, or here via a small bookshop
2. Art Therapy for Anxiety and Depression by Corrina Spelts
- What’s Inside: Art exercises tailored for anxiety and depression.
- Highlight: Easy and intuitive activities, no “artist” label needed.
- Get it here via Amazon
3. Anxiety Relief Activity Book for Adults by Bubba Publishing
- What’s Inside: A blend of coloring, Sudoku, mazes, and word searches.
- Highlight: Offers varied activities for diverse moods and preferences.
- Get it here via Amazon
Final Thoughts on Using Art as a Tool to Cope with Anxiety
Art is more than just a fun hobby or creative activity. It’s a powerful way to communicate about and deal with anxiety. I’ve shared my own anxiety-related art and hope that you’ll make some of your own.
Drawing is good for our mental health. It helps us stay in the present, lets us express ourselves, and even changes parts of our brain linked to anxiety. Drawing isn’t just about showing feelings; it helps us take meaningful action to cope with and recover from anxiety.
If you want guidance in your journey with art and anxiety, there are workbooks that mix psychology with art. These can help guide you through the process if making art from scratch feels overwhelming or stressful.
So, whether you love art or never tried it, give drawing a shot. It might be a fun distraction or a powerful tool for healing.References:
- David Alan Sandmire, Sarah Roberts Gorham, Nancy Elizabeth Rankin & David Robert Grimm (2012) The Influence of Art Making on Anxiety: A Pilot Study, Art Therapy, 29:2, 68-73, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2012.683748
- Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American journal of public health, 100(2), 254-263.
- Meghani, S. H., Peterson, C., Kaiser, D. H., Rhodes, J., Rao, H., Chittams, J., & Chatterjee, A. (2018). A pilot study of a mindfulness-based art therapy intervention in outpatients with cancer. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine®, 35(9), 1195-1200.
- Lusebrink, V. B. (2004). Art therapy and the brain: An attempt to understand the underlying processes of art expression in therapy. Art Therapy, 21(3), 125-135.
- Chambala, A. (2008). Anxiety and art therapy: Treatment in the public eye. Art Therapy, 25(4), 187-189.