Karen on cover of May’s Best Holistic Life magazine May 1, 2024

Color Your World: Painting a Path to Mental Wellness – Within the human soul’s eternal search for release, creativity remains a timeless gateway for growth, self-discovery, and healing. Since the early days of cave paintings, creative expression has transcended time, offering people of all ages unique avenues to cope with life’s challenges and heal their inner selves.

Most of us are terribly disconnected from our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. We live in a world that encourages us to be externally focused and outwardly driven. But self-love is about consciously directing some of that energy inwardly.

Personal journeys like mine can be deeply transformative. After 22 years of marriage and two children, a sudden divorce shattered my world. Amid this upheaval, painting and journaling became part of my lifeline, deepening my connection to my true, inner self and providing me a sanctuary of peace and solace. Several years of creative exploration — painting, journaling, meditating and building a healing formula — led me to create workshops and share my process with others.

Over time, the demand for my unique art therapy workshops grew, expanding into diverse settings such as corporate environments and hospitals. What started with a simple delivery of art supplies in a box to a terminally ill friend in the hospital has turned into a dream come true — my own thriving business, Painting Your Soul, where lives are impacted daily.

Even before my personal crisis, I always recognized the phenomenal power of creativity as a means of self-discovery and healing. As I worked through my own and others’ mental battles through workshops, I learned that holistic art therapy can provide the perfect “spa day for the soul.” Picture it: a blank canvas on an easel, a person leaving behind judgments and fears to dive deep, a journal for penning innermost thoughts, headphones for meditation, and a selection of paints and brushes that invoke a heartfelt, inner connection.

This unique form of holistic art therapy has emerged as a powerful tool to address mental health issues, lifelong addictions, grief and loss, and providing solace to hospice patients. It’s also proven invaluable for those who have experienced post-traumatic stress (PTSD) or trauma. I’ve witnessed how it has transformed the lives of people facing each of these challenges, from nonprofits in California and Florida to individuals in health care, business administrators, corporations, church groups, and schools. The impact has been nothing short of profound.

May: My Month of Significance

May is a month of significance, marked by Mental Health Awareness Month, National Women’s Health Awareness Month, Mother’s Day, and the renewal of spring. For me, it carries deep personal reflections — as May represents my birth month intertwined with profound personal transitions of years past. During that transitional period in my life when my familiar world vanished, I painted my way through an agonizing, seemingly endless journey of healing and self-discovery. Yet creativity became my lifeline amid the turmoil.

Today, with some distance from that difficult chapter of my life, I find myself on the other side of my path of growth. I’ve gained valuable wisdom to guide me forward with purpose. When someone asked me, “Karen, what do you value most from your experience?” I said “Perseverance.” Perseverance, a trait drilled into me from childhood, kept me going, no matter how hard the journey. By rebuilding myself and sticking to my own path of healing — expression through painting — I laid the foundation of a new chapter.

My foundation is built on letting go of past pains, using hardships as stepping stones. With understanding, I see that what happened was ‘for’ me, not ‘to’ me; it brought growth amid difficulties. I have moved to a better place through forgiving and finding gratitude. By releasing attachments to past struggles, I transformed suffering into wisdom. The choice of acceptance and appreciation has paved the way for inner peace and compassion.

This experience led me to develop Painting Your Soul — a unique mental health recovery process through which I gratefully guide others to inner healing through creative expression.

Cracking Open the World of Creativity

I now look at things from a new perspective going forward. I realize the self-awareness and growth I went through would never have happened without my journey.

As Cynthia Occelli wrote, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” My life experience cracked me open in this way.

Taking the tools I’ve built and sharing my experience has less to do with what happened to me, and more with having something to help others open up to find out who they really are. I come in now with authenticity, perseverance, intensity, and love.

My life experience was far from ordinary, and I had few tools to cope. I lost my identity, direction, and power, leaving me a mere shell of my former self. Painting and journaling and my faith became my sanctuary, offering me peace and solace. Despite lacking artistic talent or a passion for writing, the more I practiced journaling, the more I realized it was becoming a huge emotional release for me, a means to express my feelings in ways I couldn’t otherwise.

Painting, too, proved healing, a form of communication through color, a way to connect profoundly with myself. It became my new language. I’d journal before and after painting, gaining valuable insights. Over time, I integrated essential oils to alleviate anxiety. I also recited positive affirmations to start each day (I put them on my mirror) and I meditated to relax before painting.

Once I started painting, worries melted away. I entered a dreamlike state, free from thought — simply being and expressing. I had unwittingly created a powerful self-healing tool I could continually rely on.

The Healing Potential of Creative Expression

Research continually shows the impact of creative activities on reducing stress and benefitting emotional health. Creating — whether painting, music, dance, etc. — can ease symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety and PTSD.

For many veterans and civilians dealing with PTSD, creative expression, including holistic art therapy, has helped bridge the gap between past traumatic experiences and understanding/communicating those experiences.

Creative expression helps children and adults communicate complex emotions and thoughts that might otherwise remain unspoken. It encourages vulnerability and self-reflection, providing a safe outlet for the release and relief of pent-up emotions. It also builds connections among people, creating a sense of community that is often missing in our disconnected world.

Being engaged in creative activities enhances cognitive functions, problem-solving skills, and mood and improves mental health. Creativity breathes life into one’s existence, offering a profound sense of purpose, accomplishment, and fulfillment.

Nourishing the Mind and Body

By reducing chronic stress, creative expression can help address the symptoms and triggers of addiction and other mental health conditions, paving the way for recovery.

Creating is a journey of healing and self-discovery. Finding your creative outlet is possible whether you are a veteran, trauma survivor, or anyone seeking wholeness.

“Thinking of relationships that have hurt me, I felt turmoil, so I started painting a churning ocean with lightning,” shared Renee, one of my participants. “I began to sob with the first stroke of the paintbrush. As the session continued, I felt at ease. This calmness led to painting a cross and rays of sunshine beams. The final strokes included the words, ‘God led me to Painting Your Soul.’ I truly believe God places people in your life. I was drowning in low self-esteem. Working with Painting Your Soul has given me direction and hope!”

Holistic art therapy provides a secure creative space by:

  1. Improving Communication Skills: Creative expression enables conveying complex emotions that may be hard to communicate verbally.
  2. Encouraging Vulnerability: The act of creating provides a non-judgmental space for people to express themselves honestly, promoting vulnerability and self-reflection.
  3. Providing a Safe Outlet for Expression: Artistic practices offer a healthy channel for expressing and processing emotions, building emotional release and relief.
  4. Encouraging Outreach and Connection: Engaging in creative activities can bring people together, build connections, and promote a sense of community.
  5. Improving Thought Processes, Problem-Solving, and Mood: Creativity enhances cognitive functions, problem-solving skills, and mood, contributing to improved overall mental well-being.
  6. Enhancing Quality of Life: Creative expression enriches lives, offering a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and fulfillment.

The act of creation, regardless of one’s expertise, provides an opportunity to share one’s work, inspire others, and facilitate shared healing experiences.

Choosing the right creative approach matters, whether in a group setting or exploring individually. Creativity’s mental health benefits are universally accessible.

Empowering Veterans to Paint Their World

Global organizations, such as the World Health Organization, acknowledge art’s role in boosting wellness and motivating recovery. For veterans, creative expression has significant benefits, including:

  • Improved Relational Skills: Engaging in creative expression facilitates a deeper understanding of one’s emotions, leading to improved relational skills in daily life.
  • Decreased Stress: The act of creating can significantly reduce stress levels, helping veterans cope with the challenges they face.
  • Elevated Mood and Outlook: Creative activities can lift one’s mood and provide a more optimistic outlook on life.
  • Greater Sense of Vitality: By tapping into their creativity, veterans often report feeling more alive and connected to their inner selves.
  • Enhanced Brain Function: Creative expression stimulates the brain, leading to improved cognitive function.

Creative expression is a versatile, transformative tool for managing stress, overcoming challenges, and healing. Whether you are a veteran, a trauma survivor, dealing with grief, or anyone seeking mental health or emotional help, holistic art therapy can make a lasting impact on your path to wholeness.

Embracing Your Innate Creativity

In closing, the tremendous impact of holistic art therapy isn’t just a concept; it’s a reality I’ve witnessed firsthand in the lives of countless participants in my program. As I honor the timeless tradition of creative expression, I am continually reminded of its extraordinary ability to cultivate personal growth, self-awareness, and healing.

Engaging in art therapy and embracing your innate creativity is a potent and accessible means to navigate through life’s complexities, reduce stress, and nurture your mental health. As Cynthia Occelli also wrote, “If you love beauty, it’s because beauty lives in you. If you love art, it’s because you are creative. If it wakes up your heart, a receptor for it already exists within you. Your soul is drawn to the things that will help you unfold your most glorious expression. Give in.”

One of the hardest lessons in life is letting go. Whether dealing with guilt, anger, love, loss, or betrayal, change is never easy! We struggle to hold on. We struggle to let go. Yet, engaging in art therapy and embracing your creativity can help you navigate these changes and find release.

It’s an opportunity to connect with your authentic self, build your interpersonal skills, and discover daily joy. Creativity knows no bounds. The mission of my company, Painting Your Soul, is to empower individuals on their healing journey through art, offering transformative experiences with expressive art kits and immersive workshops.

Allow creativity to empower you on your path to healing and well-being.

Author’s note: When creating my Painting Your Soul Expressive Arts Kit, my goal was accessibility and convenience. Clients can now use the kit privately at home or in a group setting by following the guidebook to independently express themselves through painting without judgment. The all-inclusive kit provides everything needed, from canvas to paints to meditation tips, and can be used repeatedly. Upcoming kits will be tailored to address the mental health needs of teenagers and children. The Painting Your Soul movement continues growing and empowering individuals through creative expression.

Discover the colors of your inner world with Karen Hanlon’s ‘Painting Your Soul,’ the recipient of Best Holistic Life Magazine’s Best Emotional Therapy Program of the Year 2024. Let this award-winning box guide you on a journey of self-discovery and emotional healing.