5 Creative Ways to Cope When You’re Struggling With Mental Illness or Self-Harm
by Renée Fabian
I’ve struggled with self-injury and mental illness for more than a decade. As part of my recovery, I’ve picked up coping skills for when I feel stressed or overwhelmed so that I don’t self-harm. I’ve tried watching TV or reading a book, taking a walk or calling a friend, and many others. But none of these coping skills are as effective as alternatives that involve a tangible creation that expresses my inner world, such as writing or drawing. It’s a way to redirect negative energy with a creative physical activity, and for me, it works.
Since May is mental health awareness month, it’s the perfect time to brush up on skills and activities to improve our mental health. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or teetering on the edge of self-injury, give these five creative coping skills a try:
1. Writing in a journal.
Writing in a journal may be often-repeated advice, but I sometimes forget to give myself space to express whatever I am feeling without censorship. For this reason, I maintain a journal without rules. I can be angry, depressed, overwhelmed or joyful and I can write about my feelings or experiences however I want. If I want to hastily scrawl one phrase over and over, scribble, or slowly write out each thought that passes through my head, I can. The journal acts like a container I pour my thoughts into, then close up and put away. Once those thoughts and feelings are out, I find that space is freed up inside my head and I feel much calmer.
2. Drawing with intention.
Drawing out feelings can be a cathartic method of releasing pent-up emotions that aren’t easily captured through words. But I find trying to draw without any direction to be overwhelming itself, especially when I’m already in an emotionally difficult place. So if I feel up to doodling, I always do so with a little direction. This could mean choosing a motivational quote to illustrate, drawing a specific emotion I am feeling or depicting a scenario I am ruminating about. These guidelines give my visual output some much-needed direction while reaping the emotional benefits of expressive drawing.
3. Coloring books.
There’s a reason adult coloring books have become so popular. They’re calming and meditative and provide an excellent, colorful distraction. I have both adult and regular coloring books. Depending on how I’m feeling, my concentration may not be up to the detailed adult level, but I get just as much benefit out of crayons and a kids’ coloring book. By thinking about what colors to choose and carefully filling in the lines, all my mental energy redirects itself into coloring, an instant way to calm chaotic thoughts. Stock up on some coloring books, crayons, markers or colored pencils for those stormy mental moments.
Research has shown humans have what’s called “floating attention,” originally designed to keep an eye out for prehistoric predators. These days, as most people with a mental illness know, that floating attention often ends up diverted into obsessing over difficult thoughts. For me, when I am anxious or upset, I tend to fidget with my hands. To help channel my fidgety floating attention into a more positive activity that pulls my awareness back into the present, I grab some Play-doh or clay and keep my hands busy sculpting. This is especially useful in therapy sessions or when discussing difficult events, as the brain now has to concentrate on shaping a perfect sphere, cat or whatever else you choose to design, making hard disclosures a little more comfortable.
I realize tattoos are a permanent form of artwork, and may not be something everybody can or wants to pursue. But for me, tattoos are an integral protective factor against self-injury. My arms are already scarred; tattoos are a way to rebrand where my thoughts go when I see my scars. I have designs that keep me positive, like a semicolon, a butterfly and a cat. My tattoos also cover areas I am most likely to self-injure: I have a large feather tattooed over my wrist. Tattoos creatively demonstrate my resilience and the good things in my life with artwork designed to help keep me safe. As an added bonus, tattoos also remind me of my other creative coping skills when I need them.
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