Many of us have a hard time coping with negative emotions. This makes sense. “Painful feelings like anxiety, sadness, anger and shame tap into the parts of our brain that are connected to survival,” according to Joy Malek, M.S., a licensed marriage and family therapist. For instance, the anger we feel when we’re hurt is the same as the flight, fight or freeze response we experience when our survival is seriously threatened, she said.
We also tend to learn very early that getting mad or crying is not OK, said Meredith Janson, MA, LPC, a therapist in private practice in Washington, D.C. who specializes in expressive arts therapy. “As a mother of a toddler myself, I see every day how children can easily become overwhelmed by their feelings of sadness, frustration and anger. There is a temptation to distract the child or to cheer them up in order to make all the ‘fuss’ stop.”
And as a culture we hyper-focus on happiness, while stigmatizing emotions such as anger, Janson said. But anger and other emotions we label as “difficult” are actually a normal part of the human experience, she said.
Having a toolbox of healthy techniques to navigate the range of emotional experiences is vital. This is where creativity comes in. “Creating art with a therapeutic focus allows us to access deeper knowledge and self-insight that may remain hidden if we simply talk about our feelings,” Janson said.
“Talking about being sad engages the linear, rational part of my mind. But picking an image to express this sadness and then creating a collage of this feeling engages my nonverbal, intuitive abilities. It’s in that deeper level of expression that we often make discoveries and get to the real roots of change.”
Below are eight creative ways for coping effectively with painful emotions.
1. Create a safe space.
Janson suggested finding a quiet space you can sit in for five to 10 minutes. Turn on some relaxing music, and close your eyes. “Imagine you are in a very safe space, where you feel comfortable and completely at ease.” Use your senses. “What temperature is it? What colors do you see? What does it smell like? What do you hear?”
Then draw this safe space. Keep your drawing where you’ll see it daily as a reminder of this feeling of ease, she said. “This will help you in feeling safe enough to explore the more painful emotions that you may want to avoid.”
2. Imagine a comforting image.
When you’re feeling really distressed, imagine a person, place or animal that feels safe and nurturing, said Malek, founder of SoulFull, where she offers psychotherapy, coaching and creative workshops.
This might be a real being or place, or the makings of your imagination, she said. As you’re thinking of this healing image, focus on your five senses. Notice the colors, forms, sounds and scents. Notice how the image feels against your skin, she said. “Put yourself wholly into the image, and allow it to nurture you.”
Use strong colors, such as black and red, to scribble on a piece of paper for 10 minutes, Janson said. Or use paint and a larger sheet of paper. “Allow yourself to make bold marks on the paper, pressing down as hard as you can. Imagine the feelings are pouring out of your arms onto the piece of paper.”
4. Rip up paper.
Pick different colored construction paper, which reflect your emotions, Janson said. Spend five to 10 minutes ripping up these pieces of paper. Let yourself “move as fast or slowly as you wish.” Imagine that the feelings are moving your hands as you rip, she said.
5. Practice a symbolic release.
Janson suggested cutting out strips of paper. On each strip, jot down one thing that’s troubling you. Put the strips in a jar. “Shake up the jar, and then release the strips of paper in a symbolic way.” For instance, you might bury them in your backyard, create a bonfire or throw them in the ocean, she said.
6. Create a soundtrack for your feelings.
Janson created her own soundtrack to work through the loss of her mother. Your soundtrack is a playlist of songs that reflects the emotion you’d like to navigate, such as anger, grief or sadness, she said. “If you’re working through the loss of a person or relationship, the songs can represent memories of that person.”
Listen to your finished soundtrack, and let yourself sink into whatever emotions arise, she said.
7. Create a dreamcatcher.
This exercise is “based on the Native American tradition, in which a small hoop was decorated with feathers and beads in order to ward off bad dreams while letting positive dreams through,” Janson said.
Draw the hoop by drawing a circle. Inside your circle, list all the things that trigger your negative emotions or circumstances that are bothering you right now, she said. Next, glue pieces of yarn over your circle, which resembles a spider’s web. This is akin to trapping the negative emotions.
“Surrounding the web, write down all of your sources of strength and resilience: positive qualities you have, things and people you’re grateful for, activities that give you joy and people you love.”
8. Create a collage of your feelings.
Janson suggested looking through magazines to find images that express your emotions. Glue these images onto a piece of paper. When your collage is complete, journal about the images you created. Ask yourself: “What are you trying to tell me?”
According to Janson, “Our deeper emotions can more easily express themselves in visual images and symbols than in words.” She shared this example: An image of daisies catches your eye. You paste it into your collage, but don’t know why you picked it. After looking at your collage, you realize that daisies were your mom’s favorite flowers. “You might arrive at the insight that your current feelings of depression are linked to old grief and previous losses that were not originally in your conscious awareness.”
It’s important to process our emotions. If your feelings seem too big to manage, Malek suggested working with a psychotherapist who integrates art into their practice. This can help you “express and explore your feelings creatively and safely.”