How art helps sustain mental wellbeing during COVID-19

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Illustration by Cynthia Zhang

Art therapy can be a powerful tool of mental and emotional regulation during these uncertain and lonely times.

Melina Chalkia, Reporter

Shortly before one of her clients died, art psychotherapist Elena Kaiser said she watched them paint a butterfly.

Kaiser recalls them saying, “I feel myself, I feel my healthy self right now.”

During difficult, stressful and isolating times, Kaiser said art can be effectively implemented in daily life to improve mental health and wellbeing through releasing emotions on paper.

Kaiser has practiced art therapy for over two decades and has worked with clients of different ages. She said it helps them revive an emotional balance in their life and recognize their own powerful internal resources for healing.

Kaiser said everyone can benefit from art therapy. She specializes in anxiety and depression, helping clients become unstuck and feel confident.

“You don’t have to be an artist; we all have this inherent ability to be creative,” Kaiser said. “It’s a desire to replicate something concrete as a way to integrate and understand the world around you.”

This creative regulatory approach is especially important during the pandemic, Kaiser said. The fears and unknowns brought on by COVID-19, she said, have hindered young adults’ social and emotional exploration.

According to Kaiser, art moves individuals from a victim mindset — where negative feelings take over — to a creator mindset, motivating people to have an optimistic and self-assured attitude.

Melissa Santoyo, a Medill sophomore minoring in art, shared her own experience with art’s ability to provide a creative outlet to tackle the stress and melancholy students face today.

“It can be a cathartic process to just sit with oneself and be like, ‘Okay, what do I want to create?’ and then just put forth something that is entirely yourself,” Santoyo said.

Art can also act as a distraction or escape from reality. For Santoyo, the repetitive process of engaging in art, like painting or drawing, helps her turn the pressures of everyday life into what she calls “white noise.”

“I think it’s a great way to either interact with our problems and help us process our emotions about the current situation or take a step away from the current situation and immerse ourselves in something else,” Santoyo said.

According to Kaiser, it is easy to evade mental warning signs and negative feelings. However, avoiding them and allowing them to accumulate creates further emotional dysregulation. People need to find a way to “unpack it and peel it,” Kaiser said.

There is also a neurological foundation to collaborative art therapy, Kaiser said. She explained that as interpersonal attachment is associated with the creative side of the brain, engaging in a joint artistic process with other people can enhance the effects of art therapy.

In her therapy, Kaiser often implements the theory of ego states and internal family systems, which was developed by Richard C. Schwartz.

According to Schwartz’s theory, every person has an “internal family system,” which consists of one’s identity and additional ego states.

“We have a worried self, our sacred self, our lonely self, but sometimes, the negative parts take over and we feel lost; the fear, the anger, the stress take over,” Kaiser said.

According to Kaiser, by understanding these negative parts of the self and learning how they function as a whole through art therapy, people can ultimately find a balance between the positive characteristics of the self and the negative.

Antonia Mufarech, another Medill sophomore minoring in art, said art gives her clarity and helps her release negative thoughts.

“Since I was young, art has always been a tool for me to understand my emotions, and doing that with others can magnify the process,” Mufarech said. “I sometimes don’t know what I feel until I write words on a notebook or splash paint on a canvas — art, to me, is basically therapy.”

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Twitter: @ChalkiaMelina

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