I’ve posted before about how I find that colouring intricate patterns can be very calming.
When I was an inpatient I drew and painted a few times, which I had not done for many years. I go through phases of doing a lot of cross-stitch embroidery or making greetings cards. It seems to be something that I do a lot of and then leave for a while then return to it. Sometimes I find it helpful and calming but other times, I really want to be able to do it but am not able to. If I try to push myself to, it just doesn’t work – I go wrong all the time when I try to follow a pattern, or I just can’t put together anything pretty. Then far from helping I feel dragged down lower. It’s as if when I am completely drained and lacking in emotional / mental energy, there is nothing with which to be creative. In those states I often need to sleep, or paradoxically, to do something physical like getting outside and walking.
I’ve been on two different wards as an inpatient. One of them had a variety of craft activities available and support to use them and discover and learn new ideas for projects. For example we learnt to make plaited bracelets, worked together to put together a collage display, coloured stained-glass window images, and so on. The peer support worker spent a lot of time facilitating these activities. The other ward did not really have such resources and there was nobody to support these kinds of activities. The first ward seemed much more an environment in which it was possible to focus on having hope of getting better and learning skills to cope. Of course the access to creative materials was not the only reason (I think the work of the peer support worker was very important and I will post about that separately). However I think it made considerable difference to how the days passed.
I think in working with simple materials to create something beautiful, you can empty your mind, practise mindfulness techniques, slow some of the frantic anxiety as you become absorbed in the task. The concentration it requires and the different sensations you encounter – textures of fabric and materials, sounds, colours, deciding how to combine them, perhaps repetitive and rhythmic motions, the sense of putting together something lovely from all the separate parts – all of this helps occupy your mind. In a similar way to distraction techniques, by filling your mind with all these sensations, they can become the focus, rather than obsessional thoughts, sadness, anger and so on. It does not solve anything but can replace some of the intensity of an emotion for a time. I can find it helpful in trying to delay self-harming as well as in times of generalised anxiety or after panic attacks. My friend who suffers with an eating disorder said that in particular having something to do with her hands can calm her after eating and help her resist the urge to binge-eat and/or purge.
My clinicians explained that there is a limited number of sensations the body and mind can experience at any one time. In personality disorder, our emotions may reach a higher level more quickly and in this heightened state, we cannot think rationally or mentalise or make good decisions. We cannot see outside of the emotion. It also takes longer than it does in most people for the level of emotion to fall. One thing that can help the emotion to fall, to get to a level where we can start to mentalise, use distraction techniques or choose to do other things that help us, is to “shock” the body with another strong sensation. For example, putting your hands under very cold water, holding ice, or (this one works well for me) eating something with a sharp taste. I use pieces of lemon, or lemon juice, with a sharp and bitter taste. This can help to lead you out of extreme distress or a panic attack, to the point that you can then address how you are feeling with other techniques. Then continuing to do something that gives positive sensations can continue to calm you – for example, something self-soothing like hugging a soft pillow or wrapping up in a soft blanket, or perhaps one of the creative activities which provides a range of tactile sensations.
There is also something encouraging to me in being able to create a picture, object, etc, which is useful or attractive or perhaps can be given as a gift to someone else, even when we are really not feeling great. It’s another way to make it true that the overwhelming emotions are not all that there is and to start to hope that there could be some good somewhere in me.