It takes courage to seek help. It also takes courage to be vulnerable, dependent on another individual or to question one’s self-sufficiency beliefs. What immediately comes to my mind is a phenomenon you experience on Indian roads. More often than not, if you ask a stranger for directions, they will attempt a ‘guestimate’. Rarely will they say, “I don’t know.”
Fear of acknowledging our problems
This attitude seeps into various aspects of our lives, especially so when it comes to solving our mind’s problems. We take living psychologically healthy lives for granted. Any deviance from this ‘given’ norm seems frightening to us. It is silenced for fear of receiving blame or being judged by others.
When we feel emotionally low, or experience prolonged stress, grief or anger, our well-being is affected. As individuals, we feel dissatisfied with ourselves, our relationships, the work environment and our lives.
In society, there is very little room for acknowledging emotions especially if they bring discomfort to those around us. Our mental state is like the elephant in the room that no one wishes to discuss. We feel helpless to have to go through while harbouring thoughts of “why me”? Alternatively, we feel this is something we have to cope with all by ourselves. We, therefore, find it difficult or even trivial to seek help.
The mind-body connection
Mental or psychological wellness is not just the absence of a diagnosed disorder such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. It is actually the presence of a well-attuned mind-body connection that we are often completely out of touch with. It is applicable to everyone and we are all susceptible to changes in our mental well-being on a regular basis.
Recently, I was working at a hospital where young children were undergoing treatment for cancer. I overheard a father asking his child to stop crying since he was missing his mother. His explanation to his son was that he would run a fever if he cried too much. Physiologically, a rise in body temperature due to excessive crying, could lead to fever. But psychologically, the root cause was the overwhelming emotions he was actually feeling. If the parent acknowledged this emotion, it would soothe not just his mind, but also his body.
Alternative therapies and their benefits
Expressive arts are an alternate approach to psychological well-being. It uses visual art, body movement, music, storytelling and sound — taking a whole-person approach to therapy, healing and self-discovery. Here, the interconnectedness of the mind, body and spirit are deeply acknowledged by focusing on one’s heart and inner truth.
A college student once approached me for therapy. Her intention was to draw motivation to begin working on her physical health since she was overweight. A few sessions into therapy, we realised her extra weight was more emotional than physical.
Her close relationships, life experiences, work and academic setbacks all contributed to her feelings of stress and emotional eating. This self-realisation during therapy was her “aha” moment! Six sessions later, she created a picture of ‘hope’, depicting what she aspired to be — a tree bent at various points that portrayed hardships and reflected acceptance. However, the tree was in full bloom with purple flowers — signaling that difficulties did not affect her anymore.
Art therapy helps in bringing forth emotions that remain repressed, undiscovered or entirely forgotten. Therapy gives us an insight into what happened to us and the events that shaped us. It then helps regain control over our life and the choices we make.
In the college student’s case, expressive art therapy made her more aware of her life story. The pieces came together, enabling her to take control of her present. In six months, she lost 7.5 kgs, accomplishing the health goals she had set for herself. In the process, she’d also established a new meaning and relationship with her body. We’d effectively journeyed together from helplessness to hope and resilience!
“Let’s draw about it”
In my experience as a psychologist and expressive arts therapist, art has been a language I discovered while working with children and adults therapeutically.
Art helps the brain navigate a new communication path. It draws from parts of the right brain that language doesn’t. Art therapists are trained to identify non-verbal symbols and metaphors that are expressed through the creative process. It also entails uncovering feelings that are usually difficult to express with words. As a non-threatening process of purposeful creation, it is used towards achieving specific behavioural goals, social skills and special needs. It also increases confidence, a sense of control and helps individuals better understand themselves. The process remains at the focus and the strengthening of one’s sense of self is always at its core.
My work with young children has highlighted themes such as self-expression, building emotional vocabularies, assertion, clarifying personal space and boundaries, body image, and being able to identify one’s own feelings and intuition. These facets are all extremely important for further development of young ones into healthy adulthood.
Interestingly, I have found similar themes to be meaningful for both adults and children. These may manifest as difficult relationships, work situations and self-doubt in adulthood. However, they are rooted in a similar quest to better understand one’s beliefs, thoughts and actions and to align our lives with them.
Listen to your inner voice
In today’s world of compulsive sharing of life-events on social networks, the concept of self seems to be diluting. The question we often forget to ask ourselves is, “Is our self carved and defined by external influences, more than our own instincts? Are we actually at peace with who we want to be, or just a fragment of who we’d intended to be?”
There is an inner-voice we often mute or lose amid the cacophony in our minds. It is about redefining our life — to live it the way we truly want to, listening only to the voices inside. It is about being the artist and the canvas. It is about letting the world paint us but we being in control of the colours.
We all have this innate ability to create and express; it does not require any prior experience with the arts. Our creations do not have to look beautiful. It is about being in flow, at one with oneself, and untainted by judgment. And then, it is about creating a piece of art — one that is personal, unpolished, and raw. It is ideally a reflection of the person we feel ourselves to be on the inside. This process in a safe space with a trained therapist allows one to be deeply seen and heard. In addition, it enables assuming gradual steps towards change.
Therapy is a process that requires patience and perseverance. And awareness is the first step achieved towards desired change. My inner voice, if asked, would say, “Allow your feelings to guide you through life. If something doesn’t feel right, have the openness and courage to seek help. Readjust your life’s lens to a new perspective.” After all, a happy mind is a healthy body.