Art As Therapy: How Engaging My Mind Helped Me Heal and Persevere Through Pain
By: Bethany Thiele, February 21, 2019
An entry dated 2011 in my Visual Journal gives a clear representation of how I was feeling at that time: uncomfortable, frustrated, unbalanced, and angry. The pain I was feeling was consuming not only my body but my thoughts. I was increasingly irritable, and this put additional stress on my relationships. Prior to my injury, I was extremely active. Exercise, in the form of running, yoga, and weight lifting, was my hobby. I looked forward the end of the day when I could hit the gym, because I knew that would be my time to decompress and release the stress built up during the day.
As a Middle School Art teacher, I began to struggle with the physical demands of my job as my injury progressively worsened with no end in sight. I needed to be constantly on my feet, going from student to student on the hard, concrete floor, for eight hours straight. Bending over to assist students at their desks compounded the problem. Despite the pain, my job was reminding me of an important tool for healing: Art.
As a teacher, I emphasize to my students that art can be a release, but never had I thought of this going beyond self-expression. I certainly hadn’t considered it for my own pain management. As you can see from my 2011 journal entry, the connection I had between art and pain was literal: I was in pain, and I wanted to show it. I was spending all my time looking for solutions to my pain problem. I was poked, prodded, x-rayed, scanned, mobilized, measured, and nerve tested with electricity. I took pills for inflammation, muscle tightness, and for pain. I wore SI-belts, heal lifts, ice packs, heat packs, and a fake smile. Inside, I was miserable.
By 2013, I was beginning to explore Eastern Medicine (Chiropractic care in particular) and, as my pain journey progressed, I discovered a style of art that was very therapeutic for me. I was becoming more aware of the connection between mental stress and physical pain. I began to practice the art of Zen-doodling or Zentangling as a form of meditation (pictured here is an entry from a sketchbook I started in 2013). I had tried to meditate the traditional way but found it frustrating. In fact, sitting still and in silence heighted my perception of my physical pain, which was not the intended result.
To create a Zentangle, one needs only a pen and paper. The concept is to create or duplicate patterns, which can become more detailed over time. From a very early age we can create or duplicate patterns. It does not require special skills or training. The therapeutic effects of this style of art making are contributed to the way that one’s mind and body relaxes during the process of repetitive patterning. As one focuses on the marks being made, everything else diminishes. When the mind is completely engaged with the pattern, other thoughts cease to exist.
Children enjoy the act of making art as soon as their fingers can hold a crayon. They are not concerned with what others think and they are satisfied, if not proud, of themselves. Of course, we know this confidence dwindles as we grow and become more self-aware, and for many people, making art becomes a thing of the past. Fortunately, it does not need to continue this way.
For me, creating art is a great way to fully engage my mind, which helps with stress and pain management. While I encourage everyone to try Zentangling, I also believe that any activity that engages the mind and requires concentration is beneficial. The goal is to transfer one’s focus away from pain, stress, or negative thoughts, and move it to sometimes else. And, if that “something else” ends up looking like a work of Art, you will have a tangible reminder to continue your practice.
If you would like to see a quick demonstration of a Zentangle by Bethany, visit her YouTube channel with this direct link: https://youtu.be/1vkhcmMQ5_s In the video description, Bethany provides links to some basic materials and Zentangle books that will help those wishing to clear their minds through Zentangling.