ART THERAPY AND HEALTH ANXIETY

HEALTH, MENTAL HEALTH

As we look for ways to try and keep our minds in check whilst isolating during the Covid-19 pandemic, I found this list from artist Elizabeth Cane fascinating. She talks of how working with a therapist to unpick her artwork, lead to a greater understanding of herself as well as respite from her spiralling health anxiety:

  • Having experienced panic attacks and depression on and off throughout my life, my anxiety erupted into severe Health Anxiety after the birth of my second child leaving me spiralling in a cycle of perpetual fear.

  • Frightening symptoms included physical numbness, visual disturbance, tinnitus, throat constriction, trembling, zapping sensations, intrusive thoughts and depersonalisation – all convincing me something sinister was going on.

  • After nearly three years of psychotherapy, I can say I’m significantly anxiety-free after an unexpected and powerful approach helped me recover – making artwork to use in therapy.

  • I am an artist so my therapist suggested I bring in a picture each week to look at. I hadn’t made any work for a long time as I had been full-time parenting.

  • Looking at colour, shape and form, as well as the absence of these things, opened a window to my subconscious which helped my therapist access buried trauma that I hadn’t engaged with for years. This resulted in an accidental, yet organic, illustrated account of my recovery.

  • Despite a reluctance to share my art (my confidence in this area had been completely annihilated) my first drawing surprisingly inspired conversation for the whole hour of a session.

  • Over the months that follow we’d refer back to a tree I had painted as the starting point, a benchmark, of this whole journey and something with which to compare later pictures.

  • Through one of my earlier images, I learned about my relationship with control. In making a painting of two chairs there was a struggle to accept a drip of ink, it was a mistake.  Already an apparent need to edit and control things surfaced along with a difficulty in accepting the unattractive, unpredictable and negative inevitabilities of life.

  • I learned quickly that therapy was going to be uncomfortable, infuriating and even embarrassing.

  • Letting someone look at the inside of your head and make assumptions is a difficult exercise in letting your guard down.

  • You’re vulnerable.

  • The early stages bring up all the shit and when you’ve done your best to bury, avoid and distract from that shit your whole life, it’s pretty traumatic when it surfaces and it’s hard to know where to place it.

  • Often what I thought would be a positive drawing would reveal something completely different to my therapist. In my leafy tree, I saw a connection to those around me and a sense of safety whereas she noticed the crudely drawn trunk floating without detail or roots. This sparked a conversation about feeling baseless, not enough, and relying too much on others.

  • Psychotherapy reveals the hidden, sometimes suppressed, darker side of ourselves and relationships that we don’t want to see. Sometimes I wouldn’t talk about my drawing at all. I can now see that at times there was stuff I wasn’t giving over and my therapist would often take note of my ‘containing’. We talked about finding transitions problematic. At times I clearly found it easier to stay in the dark to avoid looking at reality which held pain.

  • Often it was noted how my drawings about sadness seemed very ‘ordered’ and we’d discuss how I seemingly needed to re-shape the reality of negative events – a learned behaviour that had become more and more futile in trying to change the truth rather than digest reality.

  • Many of my pictures reveal a lot about my experience of becoming a mother.

  • We discussed what happens to our sense of ‘self’ when we go through such a massive change.

  • I listed the different parts of me – mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and artist. With the blocked funnel image I saw how all of these elements were competing to be heard and struggling to co-exist all because of my distorted perception of ‘mother’ (feeling old, less attractive, unable to carve a new career etc.). I had ended up not nurturing any of the above elements leaving me expressionless and empty.

  • We looked at the expectation on women whilst growing up and how invisible boundaries are laid down early on which shape how we talk to ourselves, how we limit ourselves and what we expect of ourselves in order to fit into societal moulds. 

  • In later work, the eruption of ink shows motherhood as an intense but positive addition to life rather than the thief who stole your young, carefree, attractive self.

  • Labour and birth elevate you – not make you redundant. The image exudes self-acceptance – life is messy, motherhood is messy, relationships are messy.

  • Some work was nearly excluded from this exhibition over concern it’s too explicit. However, the ‘explicit’ burst is of self-confidence in what it is to be a woman and this is exactly what I wanted to honour, not hide.

  • I had to learn to read again! It sounds silly but it’s hard to do when anxious – sitting still and alone when all you want to is distract, run away and bend to your coping techniques despite them being unhealthy.

  • I read books that I would normally avoid, or feel wasn’t for me, as I was now on a journey of new perspectives. I embraced titles like You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay and Recovery by Russell Brand – both of which opened my mind to how I can be more open-minded!

  • Quite soon I learned that my anxiety was actually a form of addiction. The conditions around a flare-up of symptoms, and the reassurance seeking that would follow, fall into the cyclical pattern Russell Brand talks about and is echoed by writers like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. The cycle of addictive behaviour is underpinned by avoidance tactics and Health Anxiety presents us with the opportunity to avoid emotional trauma as we focus on its symptoms.

  • My therapist and I talked about rebuilding after trauma and how in adulthood it’s common that we become ill because we are stuck, blocked, having not developed through a key stage in life.

  • Was a difficult part of your childhood never addressed?

  • Did you form thoughts about yourself based on pain you were not supported through?

  • Time moving on gives the illusion of healing but the subconscious makes sure, at some point, you confront the pain so it can be healed.

  • We discussed how the culture in which we are raised builds our understanding of life.

  • Our race and class predetermine what we are supposed to believe in and quite often this goes unquestioned. I realised that as children we follow the life rolled out for us in unquestioning faith which means we rise to the drama we get caught up in. This makes an imprint that can last a lifetime but there is freedom when you realise, later, that you can let go of that drama – it was never yours.

  • Wanting to get to grips with a more holistic approach to recovery I educated myself about spirituality. For me, meditating and being ‘present’ was too much of a jump from learnt behaviours of avoidance – e.g. running around keeping busy versus sitting quietly with my feelings.

  • Eckhart Tolle explains mindfulness beautifully in The Power of Now as he discusses our “dreadful enslavement to incessant thinking”.

  • Similarly in his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer talks about “the voice of the mind” and how through awareness “eventually you will see that the real cause of problems is not life itself. It’s the commotion the mind makes about life that really causes the problems”.

  • My therapist suggested I try talking to my anxiety symptoms.

  • It felt silly at first but asking your numb foot ‘what do you need from me?’ is shockingly powerful and revealing. I had never asked myself what I needed out loud before.

  • Similarly whilst describing some visual disturbance my therapist asked “what it is you don’t want to see?” It turns out it was the reality of loss. Feeling actual grief for the first time, without anxiety diverting from it, allows for experiencing the sadness we are meant to work through.

  • These drawings are about learning that setting boundaries is not selfish but necessary. It’s possible to absorb the mess/pain/discomfort of others when your boundaries are lowered and you can live for a long time believing others’ traumas to be your own. A later similar pencil drawing shows how boundaries have changed throughout my time in therapy allowing for confidence and self worth to blossom.

  • Towards my final therapy session we talked about endings and how they don’t have to be alarmingly final. I learned that we are able to internalise people and experiences keeping what we’ve learnt, and loved, inside us to call upon whenever needed. Having made a connection with her, I’ve taken on elements of my therapist that I myself can employ in times of anxiety and will now always own the ability to self-counsel.

  • My final drawing made for therapy harks back to an earlier image of a line that represents a limitation I had inflicted upon myself; Living with one eye on death at all times. We talked about the balance in the last image as the figure now absorbs that line. Freely moving with acceptance of the past whilst comfortably embracing the unknown/future, the figure embodies the yin and yang of life allowing for the past and future to peacefully ‘be’ in order to be mindful in the present.

  • Living with Health Anxiety is living with death. We create a warped safety blanket by permanently ‘keeping an eye’ on the worse case scenarios so as not to be caught off guard but this results in keeping doom and fear close by at all times.

  • Our subconscious communicates via symptoms. There is only so much burying we can do before emotional pain starts to present itself as physical pain.

  • It is positive and necessary to feel your anger. Feeling is healthier than numbness and distraction.

  • It’s vital to understand the role of your therapist and that, when looked at crudely, they are simply holding a mirror to what’s going on with you. For example, anger towards your therapist is anger towards yourself.

  • It’s freeing to allow your perspectives to change no matter how attached they are to ingrained beliefs. Doing this results in being able to actually change the version of painful events that constantly bring up suffering.

  • It’s necessary to embrace the unknown in all aspects of life. Hiding yourself away is a misconception of feeling protected and allowing yourself to be visible and vulnerable is the only way to open yourself up to opportunity and love.

  • Along with getting better comes setbacks and they feel so much harder when you’re falling from a higher place of recovery. Your progress feels suddenly redundant and you’re right back to square one. It’s usually because something major has been unearthed and the trauma has finally surfaced – which is progress though doesn’t feel like it!

  • Therapy, for me, has been a long and uncomfortable journey peppered with moments ranging from pure despair to pure joy. Ultimately I learned how important it is for us to really listen to ourselves, our bodies and our instincts, and to point-blank look at the painful stuff in order to avoid the suffocation of depression and anxiety.

** For more of Elizabeth’s brilliant work head to https://www.elizabethcane.com/ **

 

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