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Art as Therapy: Coping With Feelings of Grief During the Holiday Season

The holiday season can be a challenging time for most anyone as the stresses of finances, increased demands of time and tasks, and unrealistic expectations show themselves in a grand way. Furthermore, if you are a person that is working through feelings of grief at this time, everything can become compounded.

The holidays can create feelings of depression, loneliness, and anxiety for the bereaved as they remember past events. Holidays by nature are filled with nostalgia, tradition and ritual, but for those grieving, this can bring up conflicted feelings of both comfort and distress as the absence of the deceased becomes more apparent. As the rest of the world is celebrating, it’s important for grieving individuals to acknowledge their emotional pain and get through the season with a minimum amount of stress. Being able to express ones grief verbally can be difficult. Art expression, as a non-verbal modality, can be an effective way of working through and containing grief when words fall short.

Throughout history, art making has been a means by which humans have expressed their grief. Whether through burial ceremonies, shrines, or memorials, the symbols that represent loss have been important for coping and relieving emotional distress.

Creativity can be a way to feel the sadness, anger and loss as well as the remembrance of times past in all their imperfections and grace, while taking time to understand oneself in the context of the whole. Overwhelming thoughts and feelings can be captured in the images thereby creating a new sense of control, organization, and containment. Focusing on the images or symbols enables a person to express stressful emotions without having to refer directly to details surrounding the loss.

Art making as a healing process allows for many positive effects to happen physiologically. The promotion of feelings of joy, peacefulness, and calm come about because of the release of the pleasure inducing chemicals called endorphins, the mood enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin, along with the lowering of heart rate and respiration. Alpha brainwave patterns are also initiated which are the patterns that present themselves during moments of prayer and meditation. The process of making art also provides a kinesthetic release that enables a person to channel her emotions and physical energy outward rather than suppressing and tightening within.

There are a variety of ways to use art and imagination as a tonic in the recovery from loss and grief. One of the ways that is helpful is by keeping a feelings art journal. This can be an excellent way to track what is happening within on a daily basis. Experiment with color, lines and shape to follow emotions, being aware of body sensations rather than focusing on thoughts about the current emotional state. For example, if you are feeling sad, try to sense where that sadness lies in your body and express this sensation as spontaneously as possible.

Another way that is helpful in containing grief is by using imagery to soothe and restore the spirit. Gather objects and images (photos, magazines, calendar photos) that bring forth feelings of appreciation, pleasure, compassion and gratitude and use these as inspiration for your own art. While this art making is meant to be enlivening in the moment of making it, it is also meant to remind and inspire you when times feel challenging in the future.

Art as therapy is medicine for the soul. And while creativity can be a wonderful companion on ones healing journey, know your limits. It may be important to seek out a professional therapist, support group or pastoral counselor that can help you further with the trauma or loss and can be the witness to your art expressions and emotions.

Tanya Vallianos, MA, is a psychotherapist who practices in Fort Collins who specializes in art therapy, mindfulness, and body-centered practices. Tanya can be reached here: Good Therapy & Therapist Coral Springs
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