Art as Therapy

Art as Therapy —

One of our clients sent in this story recently and with permission, we publish it here..

I find it hard to breathe. Like, most of the time. Over the years I’ve mentioned it in passing to various doctors and blown into tubes and am “ok” medically speaking. The general consensus is that it’s down to feeling “anxious”. I’m starting to learn more about this as a diagnosis and came to the realisation that no one has ever suggested anything I can do to combat the symptoms, just told me matter-of-factly that it’s probably anxiety. 
Odd really when you think about it. 
“Yes, looks like it’s a broken arm. Quite a nasty break. I’m sure you’ll be fine. Ok then, bye”. Wouldn’t happen! Nowadays mental health (quite rightly) receives a LOT more press and people are better educated on what to do to help themselves and others, a lot more easily.

I’m just a normal person, not particularly introverted nor an extrovert, just sort of middling really. I don’t mind going to new places and I don’t need you to be there first before me at an unknown bar or party although of course it’s nicer if you are. I drive happily on the motorway, I will join in the dreaded ice-breaker on a course and I will make conversations with strangers when it’s needed. Not on the underground though obviously, I’m not crazy! 
I spent many years growing up in my family’s pubs and I am used to making polite conversation with customers; although having a bar in front of you and dispensing alcohol admittedly makes it easier. Yet I can spend days with butterflies in my stomach because I know I’ve got to drive somewhere new and I don’t know where I will park. When I worked in London the feeling of mild panic would start around 3.00pm every Sunday because I knew I was going back to work on Monday morning. I had “one of those” bosses and nothing I did seemed good enough for her. If you were male she’d bake you a birthday cake, but would pretend to forget if you were female. “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” would be her pointed comment if you ever tried to have some of the cake (seriously!). Anyway, as you can imagine this feeling of anxiety lasted for years and I know I wasn’t alone in the stress build up thing on a Sunday afternoon.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I found myself reading up on my breathing issue and came across a heap of blogs and articles on the subject. It seems I’m still not alone in feeling like I can’t breathe properly. This article I read recently listed 8 common problems and I can tick off at least two. Ruminating / obsessing over the small things and feeling like I’m constantly fighting down a panic attack are at times exhausting. I mentioned it to Liz and she is going to give me some NLP techniques to use.

One of the other “treatments” I read about with interest was the premise of “Art Therapy. The idea that art therapy is portable and can be done anywhere — colouring-in during your lunch break, sitting on the sofa writing a (never to be sent) postcard to someone who is stressing you out at work. You get the idea. With all that loosely in mind, I bought myself a dilapidated sideboard from Ebay!!

eBay purchase ready for upcycling

£25 for something advertised as “structurally sound but in need of some tlc”… I wanted a “project” but having got it home, taken the drawers out and watched in dismay as all the tiny pieces of wood fell off when I did so, did not entice me to think of it as “structurally sound”. Still, I liked the idea of it being in need of some tlc. Aren’t we all? Trust me when I say the photo above makes it look MUCH better than it actually was!!

I’d read up on how to restore a sideboard and so set about with the DIY prep. Several hours and several sheets of sandpaper later and I was ready to start filling the massive holes. Yes, this poor sideboard had been attacked with a chisel and some gloss paint, some weird greasy black oil and a hammer at some point and had fought back bravely, if not successfully!

Upcycling a sideboard — a LOT of wood filler

Finally filled and re-sanded and it was time for the paint. I’d read about a “mix your own” paint powder called Miss Mustard Seed Milk Paint which boasts no chemical nasties and mindful of not wanting a paint that stank out the house for months to come, (as someone who not only hates strong smells but has issues with breathing!!) I ordered several bags of the colour Typewriter, a bottle of their Hemp Oil for the finish and having painted the top once, watched it crack several hours later, re-sanded it all off (valuable lesson in perseverance right there), added a bottle of the bonding agent to mix in to the paint and re-painted it again.

Miss Mustard Seed “Typewriter” drying

As someone who feels anxious quite a lot, I am as you would expect a meticulous person in my work. I am a methodical list and task maker and I sometimes stop to tidy my desk and re-order my thoughts while I’m working.. I do wonder though if in reality I’m actually a scruffy, chaotic person, easily bored who’d prefer nothing more than to “let go”, say no and not bother sweating all the small stuff. Working on a project like this taught me a lot about myself. I definitely have an inner conflict between “do it properly!” and “just shut the drawer, no one will ever know!”.. Knowing that if I didn’t re-sand the top and re-paint it again would mean the entire thing looked rubbish was what made me do it all again, but I really would have preferred at that point to take the easy route and just buy a brand new one online. But I didn’t. I really did want to give the premise of Art as Therapy a go. And you know what? It works. My breathing is normal when I’m sat on the floor by myself with a tiny brush filling in the cracks with paint (yeah I know you’re probably not supposed to do it that way!). I’ve got an enormous sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with the finished product and I now know that being able to walk away from work and children and housework for a few hours on a weekend is actually invaluable in maintaining my overall wellbeing and mental health. Working with your hands is really rewarding!


Up-cycling has many similarities to living with anxiety. Preparing for a situation you know is likely to cause stress can help combat it on the day. There’s a fine line of course between preparing, giving yourself time to think about it and then moving on, and “over thinking” and “obsessing” though. And obviously, having the right tools and coping mechanisms in place is also invaluable. There are a heap of books you can buy on the subject of overcoming stress and anxiety — here’s a helpful list.

So enough with the analogies, if you are interested in knowing how I achieved the look of my restored sideboard, here are all the tools. I made a LOT of use of Amazon Prime as I work from home so don’t have much time for shopping in person. You can of course support your local business though as it’s far more satisfying and a lunchtime stroll and some fresh air can do wonders for your breathing.

Preparation is key.
Soooo dull after the first initial excitement of firing up the noisy sander, but sanding and re-sanding, and dusting (so much dusting!) is imperative. Black paint is terrible for showing up the slightest bit of sand paper dust in fact I repeated my lesson in perseverance and “doing things properly” by having to re-sand and re-paint three of the drawers which came out very grainy due to the brush picking up all sorts of dust and bits.

As in life and living with anxiety, the tools you arm yourself with make all the difference and can take the hard work out of the biggest of tasks. I used the Black and Decker mouse sander, cotton gloves, face mask, extension lead (so I could happily sand and cause huge plumes of dust on my driveway and not just in my house / garage / hair!). I bought extra sanding pads here, although I’ve not yet had to use them as the ones that came with my new sander were sufficient. I also used my father-in-law’s sander on the vast top which was a bit bigger and sort of looks like this one, but it’s ancient so I can’t give you the exact model.

I bought Miss Mustard Seed paint powder from here and followed her mixing instructions to the letter — Ok, you got me, I did that the second time round and learnt my lesson yet again by trying to paint before it was properly mixed or settled — I used an old glass jar with a screw lid to mix it in, a metal measuring cup and a small balloon whisk. I would recommend buying one of those electric coffee frothers though, here’s a funky yellow one.

After painting with a mixture of the bonding agent and MMS paint, I let it dry then did a second and third coat in just the paint. I should point out that when you make the mixture of bonding agent and paint and start to use it it’s very milky, like a thinned down gloss paint. It goes on a sort of navy / whitish streaky blue. That moment really did not help my anxiety! Luckily it dries very normally though.

Speaking of which — Typewriter dries very matt mid-grey and chalky. It really does need the wax or oil to finish off the colour properly and make it look black. I used a combination of Hemp Oil (from the same shop), and clear Bri-wax. I could have bought the MMS wax too but to be honest by this point I was fed up of paying the £7 delivery charge and Bri-wax although VERY smelly to start with is made of the same ingredients and is something I’ve used before. Make sure you put it on with the windows open and use lint free cloths — I can tell you from experience that an old t-shirt and an old face-cloth really are not lint free!!

So today, the piece is finished (all bar one missing knob as I could have sworn there were only 7 needed, and one that needs re-drilling as it’s totally off centre in the hole that was already there!!). Overall, I’m really pleased with the results. It’s still not massively “structurally sound” and in fact is missing the back piece (I know a local carpenter I’m going to ask if he can put a back on for me), but I am very proud of my achievements and to be honest, it’s not been that difficult to do. Taking photos as you go along definitely helps with the sense of accomplishment and the MMS paint was more like a wood stain so goes on really easily!

Back to reality and I’m about to take a group of small children on a playdate to the local cinema. I can’t really remember where it is having only been once before and already I can feel that my breathing is getting laboured again. It’s an odd feeling, one like you can’t take a “full” breath and as I said earlier, are constantly fighting down a small panic attack. In a minute I’m going to do the Take Five 5 min De Stress which my coaches Jo and Liz recently recorded and plan the route on my phone. 
Tools + Preparation = No Stress :)

Lastly, while it sounds so blatantly obvious when you say it out loud, I’m also going to factor in some time every weekend for myself — with the washing pile, bathroom cleaning and children firmly out of sight for just a few hours as my next project will be to tackle our 6 ancient kitchen chairs in the same mustard seed paint and finish. Wish me luck!

If you would like to attend one of our upcoming workshops: ‘5 Ways to
Kickstart Change’, ‘Change Your Mind About Stress’ or ‘Teenage Kicks’ then please visit the training section of our website.

If you are experiencing stress, anxiety, addiction, panic attacks, feeling over-whelmed or just simply want to talk, please get in touch to book a one-to-one session with either Jo or Liz.