As I head into my final year, I’ve been reading a lot more books this last month than usual. I’ve been listening to music nonstop, and instead of writing my dissertation proposal, I’ve been writing fiction and articles like the one you’re reading now. A therapist once told me that I use reading as an escape and that my solution to stress was consuming art that made me feel safe and comforted – like childhood favourites or cosy fantasy novels. Anyone who knows me can tell my mental health is on sabbatical if I’m watching Barbie movies or reading fanfiction on AO3.
I will not be the only person on campus next week escaping into art to avoid the anxieties the new semester brings. With tuition fees, the housing crisis, the rising cost of living, exam stress, being away from home, etc., many of us will urgently need to lift our spirits. The pressure on students is enormous, and with Dublin being one of the most expensive places to live in Europe, many of us will also have non college-related worries to cope with. Luckily, you can use art to get through it all while your name collects dust on the waiting list for Trinity counselling.
The pressure on students is enormous, and with Dublin being one of the most expensive places to live in Europe, many of us will also have non college-related worries to cope with.
Many studies have shown that creating or consuming art can help reduce stress. Incorporating creativity and time to listen to music or read into your stress management during the semester can help you to de-stress. Most obviously, art can help you distract yourself from what is worrying you in the first place. But beyond that, art can decrease cortisol levels and promote relaxation. It can be a form of intentional mindfulness. By focusing intently on the contents of a book you’re reading or a song you’re listening to, you are staying engaged in the present moment and preventing your mind from wandering to less savoury places.
When thinking about how to use art to feel better, it seems natural to think of positive art. Happy music makes us happy, stories with happy endings leave us satisfied and feeling good, etc. But art that is tragic can also be intensely therapeutic. It can help you to express your emotions and let go of the ones you might be holding inside. It can be a safer space to experience these uncomfortable emotions as we know we can’t be seriously harmed by the books we read or the music we listen to. Whenever I feel like I need to cry, my first point of call is searching for sad books that I know will make me sad.
Engaging with art, whether by creating or consuming, can help us to improve our communication skills. This connective process can be another therapeutic aspect. In a time that most describe as pretty alienating, art can help us relate to each other by experiencing others’ stories. Art can be a bridge to others, and a bridge back to ourselves. Returning to art from our childhoods, old movies we used to love, or books we would stay up reading, can be extremely comforting in times of stress or uncertainty. The feeling of knowing what will happen next can give us a sense of control when we feel like we lack control in our own lives.
“Art can be a bridge to others, and a bridge back to ourselves.”
“Art therapy” refers to using artistic methods to improve mental health and treat disorders. Though it has been used for thousands of years, it did not become widely accepted in the psychology field until the 1940s when it was thought that art could be seen as a representation of a person’s mind. Art therapy often refers to the use of visual art, whereas other creative arts are named differently – “dance therapy”, “drama therapy”, “music therapy”, and so forth. The general goal is the same – creating art can help people express themselves and develop greater self-awareness. For those with trauma, it has been found that art therapy reduces depression and other trauma symptoms.
Creating art can be extremely beneficial for you mentally, regardless of your skill level. If you have ever lost the motivation to write that novel, consider it found. So go read, watch a movie, or pick up your old guitar – it might help you get through the back-to-college anxiety. And if not, at least you’ll be able to play Wonderwall or tell people you’ve read Dostoevsky.