Illustrating nature helped heal my mind
Bella blogs (and illustrates) how appreciating the tiny things in nature and interpreting them in her own art helped her mental health.
In 2020 I felt I had everything. A new partner, lots of new friends and my dream job. I was living on an animal sanctuary taking care of beautiful, rescued farm animals full time. Then, like a whirlwind, everything crumbled.
Seemingly without cause, anxiety filled my world. An unexplained tightness in my chest and throat; feelings of dread and incessant panic attacks, accompanied by a multitude of visual disturbances that I couldn't begin to explain at the time. It was terrifying.
“Doctors labelled me with bad anxiety at first, but I knew anxiety. This was different.”
Panic attacks would even occur during sleep waking me up with a pounding heart and this all-encompassing dread that would leave me hyperventilating. I couldn’t sleep, eat or listen to music. Nor could I look at loved ones in the eye. Everything seemed alien to me, like I was an animal that woke up inside a human body for the first time.
Doctors labelled me with bad anxiety at first, but I've dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember. I knew anxiety. This was different. Double vision, palinopsia, flickering static across my visual field, trailing images and photophobia were just a few of the visual symptoms.
I was losing weight fast and seemingly my sanity faster. Something had to change. I started scheduling my days to the hour. Just with simple things like 'make a glass of water' and 'make the bed'. Practising at-home yoga sessions by Yoga with Adriene on YouTube, listening to podcasts by Michelle Chalfant (a brilliant therapist who created a model of self-help that was easy to understand and utilise) and lots and lots of journaling.
Paying attention to feelings
These all helped me slow down, get to know my body and connect with it. Instead of trying to escape panic, I was taught to explore it, Inside and out. I learnt how to pay attention to thoughts and feelings, of all sizes - letting each be heard, even if only by myself, in an open and un-judged space. My own microcosm.
Diving deeper into where my thoughts came from, how they showed up for me and why they were there, gave me the chance to sit above them. Instead of drowning in them. This was all part of my discovery of how important observing the little things in life is. When I eventually got the panic under control, this attention to the small things stayed with me.
Walks in nature weren't just footsteps on paths anymore, they were all the moss and lichen on the trees. The frogs and beetles under the leaves and the plethora of different plants. I discovered that when everything around us seems frightening, we can fight back with a concentration on even the smallest bits of joy - a gentle breeze, or a particularly nice blade of grass.
“As I was made aware how easy it is to overlook mental health, I was inspired to express my journey through art.”
By paying attention to the tiny worlds around us and the small-scale delights in day to day life, we surround ourselves with empowering and positive thoughts. Rather than being suffocated by big scary ones. By contemplating the minute details of something, you also unfurl a deeper connection and understanding of them.
As I was made brutally aware how easy it is to overlook our mental health, I was inspired to express my journey through art. I began drawing illustrative reminders of these important parts of healing and self-care, alongside doodles of the equally as overlooked and minute parts of nature. Through sharing my illustrations online I eventually curated a community of people who could relate to my experiences. I received messages from people all over the world thanking me for my work and sharing their own stories.
It was through this community that I found the support and validation I needed to keep going. It was a reminder that I was not alone and how there are always people out there who understand and care. Not only did this new found community inspire me to keep digging deeper and working on myself with each design, it continues to help others do the same every day. Being understood and seeking out people who've been through similar experiences is so important.
Not being alone
Feeling like you don't have control over your own thoughts can be extremely isolating. But just hearing that someone out there knows how it feels can change everything. It was actually through an online group that I found out more about what I was experiencing myself, and I eventually got my diagnosis of Visual Snow Syndrome – “A neurological disorder that causes visual and physical symptoms due to cortical dysfunction. This discovery was scary at first, but eventually it liberated me.
With what I know now, I would urge everyone reading to try two things. Firstly, guiding your "inside" out more often. Go deeper into your inner world and observe your thoughts in a neutral and microcosmic way. Because even though you may not know how to solve anything yet, picking feelings apart and viewing them in their entirety can only bring you closer. Secondly, pursue community. If you cannot find one, please make one. Whether it be on YouTube, Reddit, Instagram or just in your own journal at first. Express your story. Let your experiences be heard one way or another because not only do you deserve it, but someone out there who may be feeling just like you deserves to hear it too.
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