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How Using Your Hands Creatively Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Painting

“Making something, even imperfectly is empowering because it’s an expression of the self.” ~Alton & Carrie Barron MD

Do you ever suffer from stress or anxiety?

If so, you’ve probably tried to find relief, but finding something that works for you can be quite hard. We all react differently to different remedies, and what works for one person may not be the best remedy for you.

I used to suffer from stress and anxiety a lot. After trying lots of different remedies, I finally found relief in an activity I never considered would help.

I was locked into a life dependent on templates for everything that wasn’t basic living. Without clear instructions, clear steps, and a clear understanding of the desired end, I couldn’t get myself to start a project, journey, or activity, no matter how big or small.

At every seminar or webinar, I asked a million questions. I needed to know everything in excruciating detail. The thought of missing or misunderstanding something would send me into a panic.

Just the thought of doing anything without knowing every step in advance caused me tremendous stress and anxiety. Even in something as innocuous sounding as in creating art.

I always loved art. Art materials always made me salivate, but I never made the time for it because I didn’t know what to do with those gorgeous materials.

Years ago when I was a kindergarten teacher, I used to love watching how the kids expressed themselves creatively in their art. It brought me so much joy that I eventually became an art teacher.

This got me involved in reading any and every book on art and creativity I could find.

How I First Heard of This Unlikely Cure for Anxiety and Stress

Not until I started reading voraciously about all kinds of creative art for adults and how healing it was did I discover the connection between stress, anxiety, and using your hands to create.

If I could bottle its effects, I would make a fortune.

I read a wonderful book called Painting Your Way out of a Corner about the amazing meditative effects of different types of unplanned and improvisational art.

Then I read The Creativity Cure by Alton and Carrie Barron, both doctors who talk about how healing creative hand use is, which is the act of using your hands along with your imagination to create something new.

From those books, I learned that creative hand use that focuses on process rather than result can relieve anxiety and stress. I also learned that the creative activity couldn’t rely on following a template.

Creative hand use is supposed to help you by expressing yourself. When you follow a template, you are not expressing yourself; you are expressing the person who designed the template.

When we make something, even imperfectly, especially imperfectly, we are truly expressing ourselves, which is what helps us relieve our stress and anxiety. This is why art that focuses on the process as opposed to the product is so much better.

According to the books, creative hand use, when done right, could relieve anxiety and stress in the following ways:

You gain more self-awareness.

Painting and doing art from imagination evokes thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that block us in normal day-to-day experience. It loosens up our thinking and leads to notice how we make decisions.

Do we hide from our mistakes or try to cover them up? Can we let go and be responsive to the moment or do we need stay in control? Are we scared of making a mess, looking silly, not being good enough? All of these things come into play as we create without preconceived ideas and embrace the results.

Once you have this new awareness, you can use it to make better choices and be more effective. This will help clear up your anxieties thus making you happier and less stressed.

You become more resilient.

As you create, you might find that sometimes you try something that doesn’t work out quite as you thought it would. You learn to accept this and simply continue with the process. You continue and try to make the best of what you’ve got. After a while, you’ll notice that when things in your life don’t go as planned or when you’ve made a mistake, you can more quickly recover and move on.

You become more confident in your decisions.

By valuing the process of what you are doing, you learn how you make decisions. Simple projects need many small decisions that lead to larger ones. As you make decisions and notice that you can deal with any of their outcomes, you begin to have less anxiety and more confidence in your decision-making.

You experience peace of mind, tranquility, and sense of well-being.

Certain types of creative work put you into a meditative state as you focus on what you are doing by being strictly in the moment. This will also give you all the benefits that meditation promises, like peace of mind, tranquility, and a sense of well-being that leads to a less stressful life.

So Did Creative Hand Use Heal My Stress and Anxiety?

I had to see for myself if it was true.

I chose mixed media as my creative activity because it seemed to fit the criteria the best; you need no skill or template to do it. It uses a combination of painting, doodling, pasting, stamping, and stenciling, and there is no wrong way to do any of it.

Creating without some guidelines can lead to chaos and anxiety, so to begin, I gathered the most exciting project ideas that I found from all of my notes, bought some materials, and then started a small class in mixed media art with some neighbors.

As we started, I quickly realized that I needed everything to be perfect even before we got started. I needed to check my materials and my notes to see if we had everything I might need; just beginning was quite a hurdle for me to overcome.

When I began, a refrain would run through my mind, “It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be,” over and over again as I struggled with things not being exact.

Only as I continued with the art did my anxieties start to resolve over time.

What a freeing, relaxing feeling.

Over time, I also noticed I had fewer problems with my stress and anxieties in everyday life. I noticed I could start projects earlier without obsessing over every little detail. I found that I wasn’t as anxious in the face of big decisions. I discovered that, in general, I felt more calm, relaxed, and at ease.

Get Rid of Your Stress and Anxiety Once and for All

Just because I chose mixed media art to be my art vehicle does not mean that you cannot get the same benefits with other forms of creative hand use as well.

Unplanned watercolor painting (as discussed in the book Painting Your Way Out of a Corner), sculpting, or clay work can give you the same benefits.

If art is not your thing, then other types of creative hand use are available such as gardening, crocheting, knitting, woodworking, or even cooking.

You will express yourself, and you will become more self-reliant, productive, stress-free, and happier as you get absorbed in something greater than yourself—your creative handiwork.

The important thing is to choose one of these creative activities that you feel drawn to and then to make serious time for it.

Once you get hooked, you won’t know how you handled your stress before you got creative.

And a wonderful new world will open before you.

Painting image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Faigie Kobre

About Faigie Kobre

Ready to de-stress and rejuvenate? Download Faigie’s free e-book 25 Ideas that will Relieve Your Stress and Rekindle Your Natural Creativity.

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  • Nidhi Pandya

    Thanks for your recommendation of painting your way out of a corner book…I suffer from anxiety issues and will definitely try to read the book… I have been told by my therapist to do anything creative but I used to discount it as would feel it would be of little help…reading your article gave me a different perspective and will try to implement it. Thanks.

  • faigie

    I’m so glad , just moving that paintbrush filled with paint on a paper is enough to start your anxiety to ebb.It may take a bit of time to get used to the freedom but, it will be well worth it. Good luck

  • This article is so helpful

  • faigie

    Wonderful! I hope it starts you on a very creative journey

  • Powerful article. I’ve found that when I create something from my grief, stress or anxiety, the act of getting it outside my physical body can be so healing and calming. Too often, we try to hold things within. In many non-verbal ways, we’re taught that holding things in is part of being strong. We want to be strong. In reality, creating, movement and expression are tools that help to release painful motions and make room for strength and healing.

  • faigie

    Thank you Jenny, I think that is why art therapy is also such a powerful effective way of healing. It’s not only art by the way that can help heal but, many types of creative expression as well. I’m just partial to art 🙂

  • Julia

    Very beautiful and inspiring article! I would really love to content you in private and ask some questions relating to art as a therapy. Is there any possibility to contact you by email? i would be very grateful! Happy New Year :)!

  • faigie

    Sure Julia. Be aware that I’m not a trained art therapist but, I will answer anything you like. You can email me at faigie@eduart4kids.com

  • Inner Seer

    Hi Faigie,
    I really resonated with this article. My desire to create doesn’t exactly stem from anxiety, but from a desire to need to do something with my hands. If I don’t, I get too fidgety. This is why I picked up knitting, not super complicated patterns or anything, but enough to keep my hands busy.
    The idea that it puts you in the same kind of meditative state as actually meditating is very accurate, in my opinion. A lot of creative projects will take enough of your attention to keep your mind focused. This is why I could definitely see creative art helping with stress and anxiety.
    I’m also glad you found such a fun medium for creating. Being able to mix all of those art forms together and make a project seems like it would be very freeing to me.
    thank you for this article; it was a joy to be able to connect with you and learn about your experience.
    Be blessed,
    Rylie

  • Mahesh Sahu

    Thank you. Its really a new technique i found through your nicely written article. It seems convincing and I will explore it further.

  • faigie

    Thank you so much Rylie. I used to think that only super creative art like mixed media and such were effective and it was only through my research that I discovered how all types of hand use are so healing. Enjoy your knitting.

  • faigie

    There are actually so many techniques in this area. I hope you find the ones that resonate with you.

  • As a lifelong artist and anxiety warrior, I can vouch for the therapeutic effects of art. Especially unstructured and spontaneous art.

    I like to keep little “things” I discover throughout my day — things that could be used as art, artistic tools, or inspiration.

    For example: I work part-time as an RN. My coworkers think I’m nuts ‘cos I pocket all the colorful and odd-shaped caps, lids, and tubes from medical supplies (things that normally get tossed in the trash).

    You know those free McDonald’s toys that beep or light-up? Yep, I have boxes of those too. The wires, lights, screens, and sounds can be used to make interesting scultures. Even robots!

    But for robots you need old vitamin bottles, empty bottles of Muscle Milk, and some of those transparent caps I get from work. 😉 Actually, you can use anything. But those are things I keep the most.

    Empty shaving razor covers and hard plastic packaging (and the thin cardboard backing) open all kinds of artistic ideas.

    My point? You don’t have to buy expensive art supplies to get into art.

    I also like to keep a few different kinds of burnt-out lightbulbs around. Place them on a TV tray or small table under a sunset sky, or right after a storm, or even at night. Move it around until the light and colors reflect something that moves you. Now paint the reflection you see. Use your fingers. Use brushes. Use photoshop. It’s beautiful.

    One last thing…

    My mother uses scrapbooking as art therapy for PTSD. She fell so in love with it that she just built herself a private studio. Not for business. Just for her.

    Thanks Faigie. I wish you success in inspiring others to discover their creativity.

  • What a lovely article Faige. I love creating mind maps – a sort of halfway house to creativity with my hands, using words, coloured pens, and all kinds of symbols and arrows. They definitely bring out a different side of me when I play with a problem.

  • faigie

    Thanks Ellen. In the mixed media world they would tell us to USE those maps as part of the art 🙂

  • faigie

    Thanks Blaine, you actually sound like an art teacher 🙂 I thought its only us nutty art teachers that collect everything. What you have to do now is get a glue gun and put all your stuff together in an awesome sculpture. (and then email me a picture)And I totally hear what your Mom did, I have been doing the same only I want to bring it to the masses as well.

  • Ashley Trexler

    Wow… I must be more stressed than I realized! Never even looked at this way, but Faige, you bring up such great points about needing outlets for our stress and anxiety. I loaded up on gardening, crocheting, knitting, writing, and yoga… among other things. Not everything sticks but the ones that do calm and recharge me! Thanks for the eye opening post.

  • Faige, really great article! Thanks for the reminder of the benefits of a process oriented approach to life. I’m a musician and I often forget the power of simply sitting at the piano to improvise – not worrying about wrong notes or imperfections. Thanks again 🙂

  • Lynn Hauka

    Faige, this is wonderful. At times when I’ve felt stressed I also feel an almost overpowering urge to create something with my hands. I never really made the connection til now!

  • faigie

    Ok great Lynn, so now its time to actually DO something about it 🙂

  • faigie

    Or you could play and have a friend paint to your music…

  • faigie

    The funny thing Ashley is that before I did my research for this article I would never have thought that gardening, crocheting etc fit into this. I thought it was only very creative activites. But, hand use wins all the time (unless its adults trying to get kids to copy their creations exactly of course)

  • I cannot agree more. As an artist, who suffered from depression, I literally painted myself out of it, and healed 🙂

  • Thank you