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Creating Self-Portraits as a Way to Manage Anxiety in Art Therapy

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience in varying degrees and frequencies that can impact our sense of safety, security and overall trust in our environments and interactions with others. Excessive anxiety is a common mental health issue that can affect all types of individuals, regardless of age, gender, cultural background, or occupation. While there are many ways to manage anxiety, one approach that has shown promising results is in creating self-portraits in art therapy using various materials and methods.

In a recent journal article from October 2021 published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, researchers compared different ways of creating self-portraits and the impact that these different directives had on an individual’s level of anxiety. Based on the research that was conducted through self-reports from participants, it was found that creating literal self-portraits as well as symbolic self-portraits in the form of mandalas had been effective in reducing levels of anxiety.

Self-portraits can be a powerful tool for exploring our inner selves- our thoughts, feelings and needs. These portraits can contain self-images in the form of words, pictures, objects, and emotions. They can help us to see ourselves in a new way and through a lens based on self-reflection. When you create a self-portrait, you may experience a sense of hope in exploring your abilities and resiliency in facing past challenges that have now shaped the person that you are today. Drawing in a self-reflective way may also promote emotion regulation and emotional resiliency.

The process of creating a self-portrait can be incredibly therapeutic, and can help you to understand and manage your anxiety. By creating an image that reflects your own values, needs, feelings and thoughts, you create a dialogue between yourself and your anxiety. Often self-portraiture may contain not only the physical aspects of one’s self, but may contain spiritual beliefs and emotional content. By visually depicting ourselves in the moment, we follow through with an intention to understand what fear is present in our lives and what we need to manage this fear. In addition, self-portraits can also help you to build self-confidence and self-esteem by encouraging you to explore your own identity and, in turn, discover inner strengths that can aid in managing anxiety.

To create a self-portrait in art therapy, it is important to select an appropriate medium for the purpose of the self-portrait. You can choose to paint, draw, or create a mandala with your own hands. For this directive, you may choose whether or not certain materials would be most effective in generating the effect that you are looking for. For a literal self-portrait, you may choose to create an image reflecting your own face and/or body or parts of your body. In a more symbolic approach to creating self-portraits, one may choose an object or symbol that represents a part of themselves that is reflective of what they are currently experiencing on an emotional and physical level.

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Article information

Leslie A. Becerra, Elizabeth M. Hill & Kristen M. Abraham (2022) Self-Portraits: Literal Self-Portraits, Mandalas, and Free Drawings to Reduce Anxiety, Art Therapy, 39:1, 34-42, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2021.1976024


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