Mental Speed Bumps: Pause Negative Narratives through Art

Burnout can look and feel different for everyone. In my case, it was a debilitating mix of exhaustion, mental fog, physical discomfort, and anxiety. My retreat into isolation, avoiding things I enjoyed, only compounded these issues. The turning point came when I reconnected with collage. I picked up my scissors and glue after a six-month collage hiatus. The result was my Beefcake series, which led to a t-shirt collaboration and art installation with Plush Provincetown, and solo art show at Fame

Returning to my collage work felt rejuvenating, rekindling my cut-and-paste rhythm with a newfound attentiveness. This time, the shift in my internal chatter was stark—moving from anxious, imagined scenarios to deliberate, focused design decisions. Engaging in this low-stakes, creative exercise offered me a comprehensive view over the landscape of my thoughts, habits, and self-dialogue. 

Such a shift proved to be significant; it embodied what I’ve come to describe as a “mental speed bump.” This term encapsulates the pause and fresh perspective gained through the art-making process. Over time, this practice provided me the space to disengage from the persistent buzz of negative self-talk and reassess my thought patterns from an elevated vantage point.

My personal revelations are mirrored in the experiences of participants in my Cut Loose Collage Workshops. Participants have experienced how creative breaks take them out of their stressed-out mental state into a more playful, experimental, joyful head space. Here’s how art making can serve as your mental speed bump, fostering joy, experimentation, and a refreshing escape from stress.

Use Creative Exercises to Build Mental Speed Bumps

A participant in the Cut Loose workshop considered leaving, feeling defeated by their work. Despite their creative talent, perfectionism stifled their joy of experimentation, turning their collage into a struggle rather than an exploration. This encounter highlighted how perfectionist tendencies can obscure valuable learning and growth opportunities.

Normally, their instinct was to quit and return to familiar creative terrains where success felt guaranteed. However, pausing to examine the link between their negative self-talk and creative process led to a pivotal moment—a “breakthrough,” in their own words. With further guidance on design approaches better aligned with their vision, they chose to stay. This decision marked a turning point: they left the workshop more content with their progress and inspired to delve deeper into collage, this time free from self-judgment and criticism.

Creative practices offer more than just a break from the monotony of your daily routines; they serve as a gateway to exploring your inner self and the narratives that shape your life. By taking a break to engage in a creative exercise, you can:

  • Shine a light on negative narratives that often go unquestioned and habitual.
  • Allow for a “chill break” that not only relaxes but also brings to the surface underlying thoughts and feelings.
  • Experience a shift in perspective as you’re taken out of your usual environment, making inner narratives more accessible and conscious.
  • Document your feelings before, during, and after the session, encouraging active self-reflection.

Building Habits for Better Mental Health

For me, regular making—and documenting my mental shifts after a session—have become valuable mental speed bumps. It’s been instrumental in quieting the chaos of my thoughts, allowing me to replace them with more constructive, design-focused ideas. I move on throughout my day feeling accomplished and less attached to automatic stories that pop up.

As I mentioned above, I took a six-month hiatus from art making. Perhaps the pressure of starting a new series felt daunting. But once I’m in the cut and paste groove, I race to my studio to get into a creative flow state. After a few months into teaching my workshops, I started to listen to my own advice! I don’t have to make a series; I can mess around with materials and compositions just for the joy of making. 

Regular engagement in creative exercises can cultivate habits that significantly ease daily stress by:

  • Overcoming the fear of starting by simply engaging in the act of making, setting aside concerns of perfectionism and self-criticism.
  • Using the experience as a stepping stone, realizing that the act of beginning is often the most crucial step.
  • Providing tools to shift narratives towards more positive and constructive self-dialogue.
  • Encouraging you to evaluate and recognize patterns of negative self-talk, perfectionism, and other unhelpful narratives.
  • Focusing on the joy of the process rather than the outcome.

Embrace Your Creative Journey

The path to self-awareness and mental clarity is not a linear one; it’s full of twists, turns, and invaluable lessons. Through art making, we grant ourselves the permission to pause, reflect, and challenge the narratives that often hold us back. It’s in the act of creating—cutting, pasting, painting, or drawing—that we find our mental speed bumps, those moments of insight and clarity that guide us back to solid ground.

Your creative practice is not just about the end product; it’s about the journey. Each step, each piece, each moment of frustration and breakthrough, contributes to a deeper understanding of yourself. Pick up your tools, whatever they may be, and let the process unfold. Your mental speed bumps are not just stops along the way; they’re signposts, pointing you toward a more self-aware life.