Shelley Klammer

All of us experience anxiety in varying degrees. Your anxiety might be a daily struggle. Or it might linger beneath placid water, coming up for air when you’re facing a stressful situation. But whether your anxiety is occasional or a regular visitor, it helps to have a collection of healthy tools you can turn to.

Art therapy can be one of these tools.

That’s why I asked Shelley Klammer, a therapist and coach who specializes in a range of art therapy modalities, to share her insights into using art therapy for navigating anxiety. (By the way, her website is a wonderful and comprehensive resource for all things art therapy.) Below, Shelley discusses the deeper meaning of anxiety, along with how art therapy can help. She also shares four exercises we can try on our own to calm our minds and bodies — and much, much more.

Q: How do you define anxiety?

A: In my experience, anxiety is often a mind – generated “cover up” for the deeper emotions and the submerged aspects of self that we are afraid to see, feel and understand. Anxiety sits “on top” of the emotions that arise from the inner conflicts between our the “social self” that we present to the world, and all of the other aspects of self that we have disowned and forgotten. Hidden behind our anxiety are the inner conflicts that generate our emotional pain.

Q: For your clients who have anxiety, what kinds of concerns do they struggle with?

A: The clients I work with struggle with the self-perpetuating repression of emotional pain, and the rejection of aspects of self that did not “fit in” with others in the past. The motivation to self-express through the modalities that I offer – art and narrative psychotherapy – is often strong. Self-rejection fuels anxiety. Self-love calms anxiety. When I work with someone who is struggling with a great deal of anxiety, we gently begin looking underneath the anxiety for the emotional need for self-acceptance that has not yet been met.

Anxiety is most often a form of resistance to the aspects of ourselves that we fear expressing, whether they be dark or light. In the interest of fitting in with others we might struggle with “standing out” and expressing our unique gifts. The darker parts of our mind might struggle with thoughts like:  “There is something wrong with me. This is why I do not feel not loved, supported, etc.” There also might be deeply rejected emotions of fear, anger or sadness that keep aspects of the mind stuck in the past.

Invariably, the root of anxiety is our genuine need for unconditional love and a compassionate understanding for all our feelings, and all our colorful expressions of self – some of which may not exactly fit into expectations from society, our family, or our social groups. If we are experiencing anxiety, we can begin to search for the emotions, drives, desires, and aspects of self that feel out of alignment with who we are “expected” to be. Hidden in the shadows of our psyche are conflicting parts of self that we can learn how to creatively express in order to understand what is still being self-rejected.

Traveling back to learn the lessons hidden in our emotional pain can be done through art making and story writing. These two modalities balance both sides of the brain. The left side of the brain is logical, sequential, and it relies on the security of memory to feel safe. The right brain is the home to our unpredictable intuition, the unconscious storage of our emotions, and the rich symbolic imagistic  language of our bright originality.

Q: How does art therapy help with anxiety?

A: Creating art can help with anxiety in a variety of ways. First and foremost, art can release emotions. If a client is feeling heavy-laden with emotional accumulation, I usually suggest a daily creative writing or art practice to facilitate what Carl Jung called “symbol release.” Siphoning off the excess build-up of emotional energy through spontaneous writing and art making is a cathartic form of anxiety release unto itself. And, upon deeper reflection, the art and writing can reveal the limited patterns of thinking that create the difficult emotions in the first place.

The simple meditative act of making art can calm anxiety as well. Simply taking our mind off of our problems with an all-absorbing creative activity creates a quiet inner space so that new growth solutions can “pop up” from the unconscious mind. Giving ourselves a break from our ordinary ego pressures to appear and act in certain ways for other people invites our innate originality to arise and inform our growth steps forward.

Q: What are 3 to 5 art therapy techniques that readers can try to deal with their anxiety healthfully?

A: Here are 4 very simple ways to calm the mind and body through art making:

  1. Coloring for Calm – The meteoric rise in the popularity of adult coloring books speaks to the calming effect that concentrated focus brings. I have seen this calming phenomenon in the therapeutic art studio work I have done over the last 10 years. I have noticed that people who suffer from excessive anxiety calm down profoundly when offered art projects that have intricate patterns. Painting or coloring within detailed,  pre-drawn designs can concentrate the mind’s focus so profoundly, habitual anxieties are forgotten for a time.
  1. Zendoodling –  Zendoodling is a popular method of relaxing the mind through doodling. It can be a good structure for any beginner who simply wants to relax and “shut off the mind” through the detailed doodling of repetitive patterns. If you prefer not to dive into drawing and doodling from your imagination, there are many good books on the market that provide structured drawings to doodle within.
  1. Scribble Drawing – Scribble drawing is a tried and true art therapy exercise that works well as an introduction to spontaneous drawing. Scribble drawing was developed by art educator, Florence Cane. Her sister, art therapist Margaret Naumburg, implemented the scribble drawing when she started a progressive school for children in 1914 that encouraged spontaneous creative expression.

Method for Scribble Drawing:

a. Create a quick and spontaneous scribble, or as Cane described, “a kind of play with flowing, continuous line” on your page – with your eyes open or closed.

b. Scribble until you feel finished, but avoid making your scribble too dense.

c. After you have finished your scribble, turn your drawing around to contemplate it from all angles.

d. Similar to seeing shapes in clouds and inkblots, allow your unconscious mind to pick an image out of the scribble.

e. Develop your found imagery with heavier lines. Embellish your imagery with details, doodles, patterns and colors.

f. After you are finished, intuitively name your drawing.

  1. Spontaneous Collage – Years ago when I taught spontaneous painting classes to adults, I found that many people hesitated to express themselves when facing a blank sheet of paper. I went on to discover the simple healing modality of spontaneous collage and found it to be surprisingly therapeutic. Since then I have gone on to write and teach extensively about the ease of this method for facilitating authentic self-expression. Spontaneous collage involves choosing images “randomly” from a book or a magazine, and gluing them down in a non-rational way. Using the principles of projection of our inner life onto outer imagery, the pictures that stand out the most strongly on the page will have an emotional charge that can be contemplated for deeper self-understanding.

Q: What are your favorite books on art therapy?

A: Because the body cannot tell the difference between a real image and an imagined image, it is important to consciously create new symbols of strength and healing after processing our emotional pain. For this reason I love the transpersonal approach to art therapy in the books Art and HealingVisual Journaling, and Drawing from the Heart all by Barbara Ganim. Ganim’s transformative approach to art therapy involves creating symbolic representations of emotional wellness to meditate upon after the unresolved emotional pain has been expressed.

We can unknowingly “recycle” our emotional pain by repeatedly expressing our limitations in our artwork. For many years I made this mistake in my own expressive art practice. After the initial emotional catharsis through my drawings, I began to feel discouraged with the repetition of my imagery. Thinking I was releasing my pain, I would serially draw the same set of inner limitations over and over. To change the negative feelings in our emotional body, more unlimited truths often need to be introduced. We can heal pain at its root by asking our body for inspired imagery to meditate upon to help us emotionally heal.

Q: Do you have any final words to share?

A: It is helpful to remember that the difficult emotions that we are presently experiencing are arising because an inner conflict is trying to come up to our conscious mind to heal. Avoiding the natural timing of this healing process can create great anxiety. In a nutshell, whatever we are feeling is trying to heal. Because our emotional struggles are often expressed as images before they become verbal, sustaining a regular spontaneous art making practice can facilitate a precognitive emotional release that calms anxiety at the root.

Yet, most people are afraid to “let loose” in the creative process for fear of what might be revealed. It is helpful to understand that imagery often expresses the emotions in our body that our mind might not want to acknowledge and accept. It might be comforting to know that our subconscious mind will often generate and release images of shame and emotional pain first, and then images of forward growth will be revealed after.

Free, uncensored self-expression is a benevolent helping process. There is a self-healing potential within all of us that can be accessed through the open-ended process of spontaneous art making. The symbolic release of emotional pain through free form art making invites something new and more inspiring to emerge. Emotional release calms the body and provides “space” for our deeper mind to generate new psychological symbols for growth. Meditation upon these positive symbols can lead to the tranquility of body, mind, and soul.


Shelley Klammer is an artist, counselor, and author of the website Expressive Art Workshops. Shelley has written numerous e-courses and articles that support the release and understanding of emotional pain through daily spontaneous creative practices. Her private practice focuses on the modalities of art and narrative psychotherapy as a means to discover, understand, and integrate rejected aspects of self into conscious awareness.