Changing the conversation about health

The healing power of art during the global pandemic

In this collaboration between the College of Medicine and the Barakat Art Gallery, Dr Bogdan Chiva Giurca explores the power of the arts to help mental health and well-being during the Covid pandemic…

If you are experiencing stress, you are not alone. When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a third lockdown in early January, there was collective despair around the UK.

The resilience that we have tried to maintain for nearly a year is wearing thin – very thin!

Feelings of stress and anxiety about the current situation and the future are common; we’ve never experienced this before and finding ways to cope can be hard.

How do these feelings manifest? In various ways is the answer, including:

  • Increasing worries about the future
  • Finding it difficult to find motivation
  • Finding it difficult to build or maintain a routine (especially when having to self-isolate)
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Not keeping up with day-to-day tasks
  • Finding it difficult to exercise (especially given increasingly cold weather)
  • Comparing yourself with others and feeling inadequate (especially now that we live in an era of social media)
  • Sleep disturbances (either sleeping less or more or at odd times)
  • Decreased joy in things you used to love doing (especially with seasonal changes)
  • Increasing worries about the future and not knowing what to expect (especially given uncertainties regarding the pandemic)

We all have our own coping mechanisms and have had to develop new ways of looking after ourselves since March 2020. After all, if we want to care for our loved ones, we must first care for ourselves…

THE HEALING POWER OF ART

Getting through lockdown with art: Artist Fayez Barakat, a painter, sculptor and art historian, has helped to create our art-based first aid mindfulness kit

In a recent article published by the British Journal of Psychiatry, Professor Daisy Fancourt and her team at University College London demonstrated that museum attendance is inversely associated with dementia over a ten-year period. Research has shown that creative activities can relieve stress, aid communication, and help stop cognitive decline.

A growing body of evidence has shown that individuals who engage in art-based activities are less likely to suffer from chronic pain too, as well as be less likely to develop dementia and depression, even when controlled for confounding factors such as economic circumstances, job status, educational background and physical activity levels.

OUR ART-BASED FIRST AID KIT

We’ve partnered up with artist Fayez Barakat, a painter, sculptor and art historian, on a project that aims to increase the well-being of people during these unprecedented times – and we’ve named it the Art-Based First Aid Mindfulness Kit.

WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?

Mindfulness, the practice of focusing on the present moment while calmly and objectively observing your thoughts and feelings, can decrease stress, lead to better self-understanding and self-awareness as well as improving relationships and deepen empathy. Art mindfulness invites you to step in the present moment, disconnect from your daily concerns and concentrate deeply on the object in front of you.

Artist Fayez Barakat: ‘It is my belief that feelings, sensations, thoughts, expectations, and dreams are frequencies that respond to colours, shapes and forms that are embedded in our subconscious minds.

‘When I paint, I try to share my experiences through this vibration of colours. The discipline of my distribution of my memories is reflected in my paintings.

‘The ecstasy I feel after the completion of each artwork is the basis of a new creation and a process of spiritual growth. To share this journey with my viewers is my ultimate joy in the brief experience we call life.’

How can you harness the healing power of art with just a few minutes every day?

1). Get rid of distractions

First, let’s create a distraction free environment: messages, selfies, Twitter feeds, WhatsApp, and Instagram notifications can wait. Put your phone away and find a quiet place or why not try some noise isolating headphones? Now it’s time to connect with art.

2). Focus on your breath

There’s no big secret here – the simplest way to do mindful breathing is to focus on the inhale and exhale phases of breathing. Some people find it helpful to focus on the chest movements (rising and falling during breathing) or on the passage of air through the nostrils. Find a comfortable rest position (probably best seated on a chair, floor, cushion): hands resting on your knees, back upright (but not too tense).

As anyone who has meditated before knows, everyday thoughts are very hard to let go of. As you focus on your breath, you’ll notice that your mind begins to wander.

You’ll most likely get distracted by random thoughts, sounds or sensations, but that’s okay. Simply notice and acknowledge that this is happening and then gently bring your attention back to your breath. Allow routine thoughts to drop away as you interact with the art.

3). Notice your feelings and reaction to the artwork

Time to freeze time and get immersed by the world of art. Open your art video playlist (see below), put it in full screen for best results, turn sound on or off depending on preference and begin.

As artwork unfolds, ask yourself – Does it make you feel anything? What is your first impression? Some people focus on the vibration of colours, others on shapes, forms and rhythmic splotches of paint on the canvas. Some people experience a feeling of curiosity, mystery, serenity or perhaps feeling nothing at all – after all, that too is an emotional reaction too. Regardless of your initial reaction, record it and notice it without judging it.

4). Take a deeper look at the details

Next, delve deeper into each and every single one of the artworks. Is there any particular aspect or detail catching your eye? Perhaps the colors used, perhaps the vibration felt, perhaps certain shapes and forms that suddenly appear to be alive on the canvas. Certain details may stir curiosity and intrigue you or they may simply act as a delight for your senses. Regardless of your reaction, there’s no right or wrong answer – let yourself guided by the art and enjoy.

Pictured: Mr Barakat and Bogdan at one of the artist’s exhibitions (photo taken prior to lockdown)

5). Repeat the process

At your own pace, try to take a deep dive like this with every artwork you see. Repeat the steps with each video selected as part of the Art-based Mental Health First Aid Kit. You may find that you enjoy some more than others and that is okay. Between 5 and 10 minutes each day or during stressful moments should improve your state of mind and provide inner calm during the unsettling times we are all going through.

Tell us how you felt!

We’d love to hear your thoughts. If this exercise has been helpful, drop us a line at info@collegeofmedicine.org.uk and share your story with us via social media @CollegeofMed via Twitter.

Art Videos Collection for your daily mindfulness exercise (courtesy of Mr Barakat Fayez) – direct links to follow via YouTube:

  1. Beyond Bliss Vol 1 (Duration: 5 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cho0pW4jnbU&ab_channel=FayezBarakat
  2. Beyond Bliss Vol 2 (Duration: 5 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYH7FJPjYbY&ab_channel=FayezBarakat
  3. Beyond Bliss Vol 3 (Duration 5 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iE0FtWHvmcA&ab_channel=FayezBarakat
  4. Beyond Bliss Vol 4 (Duration 5 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDsN5hU4Xh0&ab_channel=FayezBarakat
  5. Beyond Bliss Vol 5 (Duration 5 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fUFTFw_hL0&ab_channel=FayezBarakat
  6. Beyond Bliss Vol 6 (Duration 5 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53wqlLPPhgs&ab_channel=FayezBarakat
  7. Beyond Bliss Vol 7 (Duration 5 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AG3KJI3Z6qU&ab_channel=FayezBarakat

Bogdan Chiva Giurca