Navigating the Canvas of Well-being 

By Omar Marzouk

Photo Source: https://www.verywellmind.com/art-therapy-relieve-stress-by-being-creative-3144581

In a tapestry of university experiences, there exists a shared sentiment—a fleeting euphoria, a sigh of relief, a delicate dance of achievement —upon the completion of midterms. 

It is a moment where the weight of academic endeavors lifts momentarily, and the soul basks in the glow of accomplishment. Yet, as the echoes of triumph fade, a specter looms on the horizon: the advent of final exam season. 

A symphony of impending challenges awaits, demanding an encore of focus, preparation, and unwavering dedication to traverse the labyrinth of final exams. The canvas of student life, painted with strokes of relief and anticipation, unfurls its intricate patterns. 

As we navigate trials and tribulations that is the University of Toronto, remaining focused is equally important as maintaining your health and well-being. 

Over the past 5-6 years, the discourse on self-care has ascended to a prominent position in cognitive research, capturing the attention and scrutiny of various post-secondary institutions. Whether perusing social media or delving into my UTmail, I invariably encounter an abundance of mental health resources.

The results of a 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association  (APA) underscored the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental well-being of young Americans. Despite the consistently identified external stressors in previous years, they persist as significant sources of stress, exerting tangible effects on both mental and physical health. 

The unique amalgamation of these stressors and an unrelenting crisis prompts the APA to raise an alarm: a national mental health crisis looms, with potential far-reaching consequences for our health and society in the years to come (APA, 2020).

Despite the urgency of the matter, I often find both myself and my peers grappling with a lack of understanding of what to do to keep my stress in check. However, there are practical steps we can take. Most studies seem to recommend some form of physical activity or breathing exercises, such as taking 10 very slow breaths in and out. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, trying an imagery exercise could be beneficial. Picture this: the sun dips low on the horizon, casting a golden hue across the tranquil beach. Waves lap gently at the shore, leaving behind a glistening trail of foam. The salty breeze carries whispers of relaxation, inviting a moment of serenity amidst the rhythmic dance of the sea.

I’m sure all of us have at least attempted these methods. For some of us, they work great, but if you’re like me, stepping away from my computer screen for 5 minutes or slow breathing is only a temporary fix to a long-term problem. I won’t assert that I hold a definitive solution to stress modulation, as the path to stress management is a personal and unique discovery. However, I can share what worked for me and why. Envision a quiet sanctuary, bathed in soft, natural light that filters through gently billowing curtains. The atmosphere is hushed, punctuated only by the occasional rustle of paper and the rhythmic hum of creativity. In the center of this serene space, an easel stands, adorned with a blank canvas eagerly awaiting its transformation. Dip your brush into a palette of tranquil blues, greens, and calming earth tones. With each stroke, a symphony of colors dances across the canvas, blending and intertwining like a melody. The scent of paint wafts through the air, a comforting and familiar aroma. As you immerse yourself in the process, the outside world fades away, and time seems to stretch. Each brushstroke becomes a deliberate expression of emotion and thought, creating a visual poem of tranquility. The act of painting becomes a meditative journey, a sanctuary where stress dissipates, and the canvas becomes a reflection of inner peace. This is the peace I envision when I paint, and it’s how this creative process helps me relax.

For me, my key was painting. Painting provided me with a therapeutic avenue for stress regulation. It allowed me to redirect my stress away from my work onto the creative process, where it manifested from a detractor to productivity to an inducer of it. 

Painting also serves as a form of self-expression, providing me with a non-verbal outlet for emotions and thoughts. Oftentimes, stress can initiate a cascade of negative emotions through complex feedback loops involving various psychological and physiological factors. One key mechanism is the activation of the body’s stress response, often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response, which triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. (Outreach, 2022). 

Not only does stress hinder my productivity, but it also creates a barrier to effectively communicating the reasons or nature of my stress. Painting, for me, becomes a vital outlet for self-expression, stepping in where words often prove inadequate. In the realm of colors and brushstrokes, I find a means to communicate and externalize emotions that might be challenging to convey verbally. The canvas becomes a visual testimony, offering a unique language to articulate the complexities of my emotional experience when conventional communication falls short.

In the complex tapestry of university life, where moments of triumph coexist with the challenges of academia and the pervasive impact of a national mental health crisis, the quest for effective stress management stands as a deeply individual journey. 

Navigating the intricate patterns of stress underscores the vital importance of balancing academic pursuits with personal ones such as our well-being. In recognizing the diverse and individualized nature of solutions, it’s essential to acknowledge the general creative process as a potential outlet. The act of creation, in its various forms, acts as a holistic outlet, engaging the mind and senses in positive, expressive activities that contribute to overall well-being and stress regulation. While my personal journey has led me to find solace in painting, it’s crucial to understand that the realm of creative expression is vast and limitless. Painting, just one thread in the rich tapestry of possibilities, is by no means a restrictive path. Embracing the understanding that solutions are diverse, we should explore our own paths to stress relief. May this collective exploration lead us to resilient strategies, a harmonious balance, and an enduring sense of inner well-being.

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