Art: An effective tool against anxiety?

Andrew (sitting) and Gearoid at the Anatomy of Panic, Science Gallery. Image courtesy of Gearoid O’Dea.

By Eoin Meegan

In conjunction with First Fortnight during January, artist and sculptor Gearoid O’Dea, and psychologist Andrew Pringle ran a workshop in the Science Gallery which explored an innovative approach to coping with anxiety. It suggested using art as an agency for restoring the mind to a state of calm.

The Anatomy of Panic, as it was called, lasted about an hour, with Andrew doing the science bit and Gearoid handling the artistic side.

Anxiety begins in the brain, we were told, in a place called the amygdala. This is one of the oldest parts of the brain and the part that creates fear, which Andrew hastens to add is not under our control, it is part of the autonomic system.

The amygdala produces a raw burst of emotion, which we physiologically experience then as anxiety. Then another part of the brain, the insula, detects the jolt and acts as a kind of fire alarm, making us aware of the supposed impending danger. And finally, the pre-frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex act as a buffer or dam to prevent the worst effects of the amygdala getting through. Honestly, an hour with Andrew and Gearoid was like a crash course in neuroscience. Except it was probably a lot more fun!

If the signal from the amygdala is too strong, sometimes it can burst through the dam and this can leave us feeling in a constant state of high alert. Many things can trigger jolts from the amygdala; certain people, or even places, but a big one for many people is public speaking.

Even before we’re actually doing these activities, just thinking about them can get the amygdala activated. The heart rate soars, we start sweating, the throat contracts, and our breathing gets shallow. A full panic attack may not be far off.

The system is ‘evolutionary adaptive’. In other words, we evolved brains to cope with the real and imminent danger that besieged early humans. However, these same triggers can be wholly inappropriate in the modern world. Jolts from the amygdala are necessary to alert us when we’re in actual harm. The problem is we give ourselves too many of these jolts and at the wrong times. A social media alert is not a sabre tooth tiger. Being at the mercy of the amygdala can be a hindrance today.

Of course, some people are more vulnerable to these jolts from the brain than others. Many factors can contribute to this, such as our early life experiences, or social conditioning. Also, some people are more sensitive than others.

By that I mean they are more keenly attuned to their feelings and to what’s going on around them. These people often pick up hostility nearby very quickly, they can get what could be described as a ‘vibe’ that something’s amiss before it manifests itself. A fleeting thought of a perceived danger can start it. Or the feeling that a place is crowding in on them and they just need to get home but are unable.

Sadly, the price for being a more empathic person, and a more creative and caring person can be a greater susceptibility to external stimuli. High levels of creativity and sensitivity have been known to go together, which may explain why so many artistic people seem to suffer from anxiety, bipolar and other related ailments.

The composer Beethoven was a good example of this. To put it in neurological terms, they have a less effective dam.

So what’s the solution? How do we strengthen the dam? Gearoid, who is very candid about suffering from panic attacks in the past, talked of a time he felt an attack coming on in a crowded area in London. He simply stopped what he was doing and took note of all that was happening around him, and later incorporated this into his art.

It was a combination of three things; stopping, taking note of his surroundings, and then doing something with that information. This grounding exercise created a kind of insulation that stopped the dam. For others the simple act of colouring a picture book can have the same effect. He explains that art is a form of open-monitoring meditation. Traditional meditation is where you sit and focus the attention on a particular object, such as a candle or the breath, whereas open-monitoring meditation is where we just observe, in a general way, all that is going on around us, noting all the phenomena as it happens. It’s meditating but in a different way. Gearoid says, “art can shock us into the present moment.”

For him, the act of putting brush to canvas acted like an anchor that got him out of the anxiety state, in the way focusing on your hands does in a meditation class. It’s the same thing only experienced in a different way.

The difference is agency. The art puts a distance between you and the anxiety, not in a detached kind of way where you feel alienated from it, but as a physical reminder that something else is happening. You become involved with something outside of yourself. You suddenly realise, “I am not my anxiety.”

I can see this could apply to other forms, such as music, dance, even cookery. The very act of applying oneself fully to a task puts us in the moment. As a lady in the audience very aptly put it, such tasks allow us to stand on top of the dam and look down on our thoughts. A very stimulating talk and demonstration.