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Art Therapy and OCD: 3 Repetitive Processes to Relieve Our Thoughts

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC


I recently came upon an article posted on the Anxiety & Depression Association of America in which an individual artist, Amy Diener, wrote about her experience with symptoms of obsessional compulsive disorder (OCD) and how creating art, in accompaniment with exposure response psychotherapy and medication, provided her a space to distract from her intrusive and anxious thoughts as well as to focus her energy towards something meaningful and enjoyable for herself. There is very little research on how art can alleviate symptoms of OCD, yet there are many firsthand accounts of individuals who have used art as a mindful practice that has helped to reduce feelings of shame, frustration, and anxiety.


Art therapy can be particularly ideal for individuals who have obsessional and compulsive behaviors as the art therapeutic experience can both utilize the client’s strengths in creating detailed, pattern-based and meditative works, as well as promote healthy forms of coping through active concentration. There are many processes which utilize repetitive motions or repeated motor activities, such as painting, drawing, fiber arts and sculpting. When an individual intentionally focuses and concentrates on a repeated activity or motion, this in turn produces a state of calm. When we are able to focus on something outside of ourselves, we are better able to distract from our thoughts and in turn manage the compulsive urges that might stem from these obsessional thoughts.


Let’s explore some examples of these repetitive techniques and processes and consider how this could be useful for yourself or someone you know in alleviating the emotional stress of OCD.


Painting


As mentioned in the first part of the blog, Amy Diener wrote about her experience with using painting dots as a way to alleviate her symptoms of OCD, while she was navigating the best treatment options. What I took away from her statement was that it was the repetitive process of her painting, the application of dots one at a time to a large canvas, that was therapeutic. She reported that the process of applying the dots kept her mind focused on the engaging activity and she was able to distract from her thoughts and in turn reduced her level of worrying. Pointillism is a specific style of art using various colors of tiny dots to create a whole image. Impressionistic styles of painting also use repetitive applications of paint strokes and may be an effective way to focus on color and application during the process of creating the painting. Painting abstract art using various lines and shapes in a pattern could also be a way to focus attention on the art process and distract from internal thoughts.


Counted Cross-stitching


For individuals that have obsessional thoughts that require counting or tallying certain occurrences (washing hands X amount of times or checking stove knobs X amount of times), counted cross stitching may be an effective way to harness the impulse to count or touch in a productive and focused way. In this process, the individual ‘stitcher’ is tasked with counting the number of threads stitched into the chosen fabric. If one is following a pattern, then the skills of counting and maintaining awareness of what is needed and how much more is needed become utilized in a productive and valuable way in this process. The experience of utilizing the obsessional thought pattern as an effective skill in this creative art process can provide some sense of accomplishment and hope where in other realms the obsessional thoughts can leave one feeling helpless or ashamed.


Pattern Making and Cross-Hatching in Drawing


Another art technique that requires the artist to utilize a repetitive pattern of movement is known as cross-hatching in drawing. The goal of cross-hatching is for the artist to create changes in value, light and dark, on the surface using an overlapping series of parallel and intersecting lines. One might use this technique to create shadows or areas on the page where something is 3-dimensional, such as a cube or sphere. One might even practice this technique as a warm-up exercise creating markings across the page to go from light to dark. In a drawing, one might also focus on creating patterns of lines as a repetitive process. Each of these techniques is meant to draw one’s attention to the mark-making process and distract from the intrusive thoughts causing distress.


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