On Our Minds: Introducing Art Therapy and How You Can Try It at Home

On Our Minds is a recurring series at Mochi Magazine dedicated to destigmatizing mental health in the Asian American community. By addressing the issue of mental health head on and making more information accessible, we hope to create space for us all to connect and feel less alone in our experiences.

Art therapy is a psychotherapy practice that serves as a supportive outlet for people to discharge their emotions and stressors through creative art-making processes. Many studies have found that making art increases our emotional growth and boosts our autonomy: it can help us sublimate overwhelming emotions, experiment with new tasks, make or alter decisions, and accept our own emotions and artworks. It especially helps us express what can’t be put into words, shaping those difficult feelings and traumatic experiences in less intimidating ways. You do not need to be an artist to see an art therapist or practice your own art therapy techniques because it is simply a way to express yourself.

Why Art Therapy is Important

Therapy isn’t just for people who have faced severe trauma or received a clinical diagnosis. Many students who have experienced parental divorce, domestic violence, isolation at school, the loss of a loved one, or are dealing with psychological stresses can benefit from therapy which helps them channel grief and stress in healthy ways.

Students from Asian immigrant families and Asian backgrounds are often observed to be repressing their feelings. In therapy sessions, they shared that their parents do not ask about their personal feelings and focus instead on academic results. Therefore, the students often feel that there is no space to talk about their authentic feelings. Based on my clinical work experiences as an art therapist, I met many students who lost their parent(s) but never discussed their sadness with their remaining family members because talking about their parent’s death was considered at taboo at home. The remaining parent was often focused on things like the college application process and getting into highly ranked colleges, never disclosing her or his own grief either. Nor did the students share their feelings with their friends because they thought it was a shameful topic. They were worried that others might look down on them. Having no outlet to express their feelings, either within their family or outside of it, the students felt that they had to bottle them up instead.

Unfortunately, many people repress their emotions similarly to these students. Repressed feelings elevate the stress level, which can actually increase anxiety and contribute to a sense of low self-esteem. From there, it can manifest as selective mutism, depression, sleep disturbances, or panic disorders, and can trigger other mental illnesses. A repressed person can also exhibit psychosomatic symptoms like sweats, migraines, and stomach aches. Moreover, repressed emotions can cause self-destructive thoughts and behaviours such as suicidal ideation and over-eating/drinking. On the other hand, art therapy can serve as a  safe and comforting outlet to release those emotions and maintain one’s mental health.

Simple Art Therapy Exercises to Try at Home

(1) Healing Journal

A healing journal is a secure outlet for us to express our truest selves in a safe and private way. Buy an empty journal and decorate the cover with materials that you like. (For a cheap yet nice option, I recommend the $1 journals from MUJI!) On the first page of your journal, create an acrostic poem using your name. Write your name vertically down the page so that each letter becomes the start of a line. Then, for each letter of your name, think of positive words that energize and motivate you! Now you’ve made a safe space where you can write your thoughts and feelings down whenever you feel unsure or afraid to share them with others. In this journal, there is no right or wrong. There is no judgement!

(2) Inside and Outside Mask

Create an “inside and outside mask” to help you reflect on your emotions and how you express them. Order one piece of paper mache mask from Amazon or Michaels. On the outside of the mask, recreate the face you show to your friends, family, professors, and co-workers. Think of how you present yourself in public. On the inside of the mask, show your true self and how you really feel inside. You can use colors to represent emotions, symbols to show things that are important to you, or even write your feelings on the mask in words. Use any material you like—paints are good for expressing nuances while markers can help you feel more in control. Once you finish, take some time for self reflection. What kinds of masks do you wear every day and why? Are there emotions you’ve always hidden? For example, you may behave in an outgoing manner at school or work, but you may actually feel somewhat stressed or nervous in social settings. You may feel vulnerable and fragile. How difficult is it to be yourself around your family, friends, and other people? What are the masks you often wear to hide how you really feel?

(3) Feelings Sandwich

Buy a pack of origami paper. Draw different sandwich ingredients (lettuce, ham, cheese, egg, bread, etc.) on different pieces of origami paper and cut them out. Then write down your feelings on the different ingredients, one emotion per ingredient. Add more ingredients whenever you feel overwhelmed or stressed. You can create a box or envelope for the sandwich so it can be safely contained. This not only helps you identify your emotions and accept them, but also gives you a creative outlet that doubles as a coping mechanism.

No matter which art therapy technique you choose to practice, remember that there is no right or wrong way to do it. These techniques are more about the process than the result. It’s the practice of letting emotions out and giving them a form, rather than producing a result to be judged. The result is simply an outcome for you to be aware of so that you can gain a greater understanding of your emotions.

Additional reporting by Yimin Peng