Using Art Therapy and Yoga in the Treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder

Art therapy and yoga can help with social anxiety. Melissa R. Giuttari, a licensed mental health counselor and certified yoga instructor, treats people with social anxiety disorder.

"People with social anxiety disorder essentially view their environment and relationships as threatening and stressful," explained Giuttari. "They experience symptoms of panic, fear, and even shame because of this. The ability to shift one’s perspective and to remain calm in stressful situations are the main factors involved in reducing social anxiety, at least in my approach. Art therapy and yoga are two approaches I use to treat social anxiety disorder with great success."

The Uniqueness of Art Therapy

"Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art and the creative process to resolve emotional conflicts, thereby enhancing emotional, social and physical well-being," said Giuttari. "An underlying premise of art therapy is that when you engage in the creative process—painting, writing, music-making, dancing, for example—you are activating the part of your brain that produces ideas, inspiration, and insight.

"This flow state of creativity brings us to that “aha!” moment, helping us to discover new perspectives on stagnant problems. In the case of social anxiety, this can translate into shifting the perception of our environment from threatening to non-threatening. On top of this, artwork that is produced in art therapy sessions typically reveals subconscious thoughts and serves as a visual metaphor for emotional issues and conflicts."

Using Art Therapy to Help Those With SAD

"Art therapy," explained Giuttari, "can be a very effective, efficient and non-threatening treatment approach for people struggling with social anxiety disorder for other reasons as well. Since one of the biggest obstacles for someone with social anxiety disorder is difficulty verbalizing emotions and concerns, art therapy is a natural portal of communication when words are not available. This then enables the therapist to identify the problem and direct an effective course of treatment.

"Another curative factor of art therapy in treating social anxiety disorder involves the sensory and kinesthetic aspect of art-making. Anxiety is mediated by the amygdala, which processes emotion and sensory input from our environment. The creative process of art therapy can “speak the language” of anxiety at a level of cognitive experience that language at times cannot."

Giuttari's approach in treating those with social anxiety disorder is centered on "strengthening your ability to remain in the present moment, in the here and now, versus 'flying away' with your worries. I use art therapy processes that require focus and attention on the present, such as painting, journaling, and guided imagery.

"One of my favorite techniques is to create a self-portrait using a mirror," she continued. "This not only draws your awareness to the present moment but also opens the door to explore issues of identity and self-acceptance. The ability to engage in this type of self-reflection and mindfulness of the present moment ultimately leads to a significant decrease if not complete elimination of anxiety."

Using Yoga to Reduce Social Anxiety

Yoga is the "communion of the body and the mind," explained Giuttari. "From a physiological perspective, certain yoga postures can create neurological changes that reduce anxiety. From a psychological view, the discipline of yoga allows us to practice observing our thoughts without acting upon them.

"Yoga can teach you a lot about the ways you can shift from a perspective of reacting to a stressful or uncomfortable situation to mindfully choosing a response to the situation.

"Breathwork, or pranayama, is an integral part of yoga that is of equal value in working with social phobia. It sounds a bit funny, but this part of my job actually entails helping people learn how to breathe properly!

"When you are anxious, you are taking very shallow breaths and bringing very little oxygen to your body," noted Giuttari. "As soon as you deepen the breath and breathe using your diaphragm, you are lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and eliminating rapid breathing, essentially dissipating feelings of panic and anxiety.

"In summary, social anxiety is rooted in a combination of thoughts, emotions, habits, and bodily sensations. I like to use an integrated approach and tailor my treatment in a way that targets each person’s unique balance of these factors."

Melissa R. Giuttari, LMHC, has more than 16 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and adults. She specializes in the treatment of depression and anxiety, using a tailored and evidence-based approach with each individual. She may be reached through www.melissagiuttari.com, or contact her directly via phone at 718.213.8664 or by email at artsintherapy@gmail.com.

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