“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” ~Kahlil Gibran
Anxiety has followed me around like a lost dog looking for a bone for years now.
I feel it the most acutely when I’m worried about my health or my daughter’s health. I notice a strange rash or feel an unusual sensation and all of a sudden: panic!
My worries are not limited to health concerns though, and my ruminations go in the direction of dread about the future of the world, worries about my finances, and fears that I’m not good enough.
Is my anxiety warranted? My mind tells me it is.
“Remember how you had that bad reaction to a medication? It could happen again!”
“You know how your daughter had that febrile seizure two years ago? You never know what could happen next!”
“Think back to that time you and your family had a slow winter and were extremely worried about money. That could be just around the corner!”
And on and on my mind goes. I know I shouldn’t believe what it tells me, but sometimes I get sucked under and can’t help it.
I don’t think I was anxious like this when I was a kid. I think these underpinnings of nervousness started when I was older, probably my late twenties. I suppose by then I’d lived enough life to know that things can and do go wrong.
I don’t like feeling anxious. I don’t like the way my body feels jangly and my mind races. I don’t like it when I can’t focus on the thing I’m supposed to be doing.
But this is not a sad story, it’s a story of tiny improvements and little steps forward. It’s a journey of finding peace in the middle of a storm.
For me that peace began with painting.
Let me go back a few decades, back to when anxiety wasn’t part of my life. When I was a child, I loved art. I drew, I colored, I took extra art classes on the weekends because that’s what I enjoyed.
I went to college to become an art teacher, switching to a graphic design track later. When I finished school in May of 2001, I had a part-time design job, and after the events of September 2001, I knew I needed to travel, to get out of the safe life I was living in my hometown.
That’s when my creative practices fell by the wayside. I would never give up those years of travel and camping and working random jobs, but when I look back, I see this is where I stopped making art.
Luckily, after the birth of my daughter in 2014, the desire to create came roaring back. At first, I was using a tiny corner of a bedroom in our small mountaintop rental house to paint. Eventually we bought a house, and I had the space to spread out, to keep my supplies on top of my desk, ready to paint whenever the urge struck.
That’s when I started noticing something important: Painting stilled me in a way that nothing else did. It eased my fears and anxieties in a way other practices (deep breathing, meditating) did not, at least not as consistently.
Painting is my peaceful place. Painting brings me directly into the moment, quickly and easily. You know how you’re supposed to stay mindful and present? That’s what painting does for me, no tips or tricks or timers or mantras needed.
Yes, I use other methods to quell my anxiety, but painting is my absolute favorite. I get to bring forth something new. I get to flow with wherever the brush takes me. I get to be still inside while the rest of the world drops away, all while allowing something beautiful to emerge.
When anxious thoughts start to swirl, I know what to do. I head into my studio, grab some materials, and start creating. Soon enough, the spiraling worries are gone and instead my mind is quiet.
Even if you aren’t artistic, even if you don’t have a creative bone in your body, I still think you can achieve the stillness I achieve when painting. You might not have a brush in your hand, though!
First things first: If you struggle with anxiety, you should seek the help of a licensed professional. As helpful as painting is, I also see a counselor, and the tools she’s given me are absolutely priceless.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are the other ways I think stillness and peace can be found, even if you’re not meditating or breathing deeply while counting to ten.
Think back to what brought you joy and the feeling of flow when you were a child. Maybe for you it was playing sports or a musical instrument; writing your own sketches or training your dog to roll over. Whatever it was, look for ways to add more of it back into your life now.
Start paying attention to your life as an adult and what activities make you forget about the time. When are you fully immersed? When do you fully let go? Maybe it’s during a yoga or meditation class, but maybe it’s when you’re preparing a meal for your family or writing up a budget for work.
Still your mind any time you remember. I do this now, especially when I’m not painting. I know that a still mind releases my anxiety, and I also know I can’t paint all hours of the day. Simply noticing the feeling of my body on the chair below me or listening to the sounds in the room around me helps my mind to quiet.
I think the reason painting is so helpful for my anxiety is that, in order for me to be anxious, I have to be worrying about the future and what it holds. When I’m doing an activity that requires my full concentration, I have to be in the moment; there is no other choice.
All of the practices that we can use to find calm, whether it’s changing our thoughts, following our breath, repeating a prayer or mantra, they all rely on the same thing: bringing our presence to the now.
What activity brings you into the now? What makes you feel fully alive and entwined with the moment? It doesn’t matter if you’re artistic. It doesn’t matter if you like making things. The only thing that matters is finding a way to be here, in the now, instead of in the unknowable future.
**Artwork by the author, Jen Picicci