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doodling for mental health

Natalie Hanley at her art desk
Natalie Hanley at her art desk

By Anna Ceesay

Natalie Hanley is a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner who started Tidy Mind Doodles because, ironically, she found that she wasn’t looking after her own mental health: ‘I was finding myself helping people day in, day out, but I was burning out. I was stressed. I felt like a hypocrite! I was telling patients one thing, but not really following through on my own advice.’

She’d always loved drawing and doodling, and also found it to be a therapeutic practice, ‘to get out of my own head’.  Natalie also believes that images convey meaning in a different way from words, and she wanted to be able to communicate her knowledge in a friendly, accessible way.

Psychotherapists and clinical therapists have used her doodles in their sessions with children, as well as in prisons. She’s been told that her visual representations of mental health challenges have helped give context to difficult themes, as well as reassuring her audience that we’re all in this together. She’s even had messages from fans in America and Australia.

I sat down with Natalie (virtually, via Zoom of course) to pick her brain about her top three doodles:

The hill

‘I was cycling up a hill, and saw someone coming down on their bike, and they were doing it really easily. I thought to myself, “I must be really unfit, they’re so much fitter than me”, and it made me want to give up, because I thought, “I can’t be bothered”. Then I realised that in a minute, I’m going to get to my downhill, and someone else is going to be going uphill. That was what inspired this doodle.

I looked at this image again recently (it had been about six months since I drew it), and was feeling something similar. It was January, so I was re-evaluating my life, and found myself scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, comparing myself to others. It’s so easy to have that negative stance, but I had to remind myself that even if I’m on an uphill right now, it won’t be forever, and not to forget that I’ve had lots of downhills, and lots of successes. Life is a series of uphills and downhills. So I took a step back and started to think about how I can be more balanced in my thinking, and added this image as a screensaver on my phone to remind myself not to get into that trap of negative thoughts.’

Comparing icebergs

‘We often compare ourselves to others. But what we sometimes forget is that we compare all of our baggage, and external and internal struggles, with the tip of someone else’s iceberg: that is, the highlights of their life that they choose to show the world. And that isn’t like for like. We’re going around comparing these selected best bits forgetting that we’ve all got a massive amount of depth and complexity underneath the surface.

While this doodle is a useful prompt, there are also more technical Cognitive Behavioural Therapy interventions you can use, such as thought challenging. A very basic summary: if you’re thinking, “everyone else is doing better than me”, ask yourself, what’s the evidence that this is 100% true?  It’s not about tricking your brain; it’s about considering the evidence. How accurate or factual is that thought? If you were in a courtroom, what kind of evidence would be presented in order to make an argument? Emotions, opinions, and feelings or hard factual evidence?

Another thing to consider is how we talk to ourselves. Do you tend to think, “I’m never going to do well”, “they always get the jobs that they want”, or “everyone loves them”? This kind of language can lead us to feel worse and see ourselves and the world around us in a really unhelpful, unkind and untrue way. We want to notice these thoughts so that we can reduce the emotional distress and anxiety that these unhelpful thinking styles can cause.’

Remote control

‘In life, sometimes it can feel like we’re watching television. Like it’s playing out in front of us and we don’t have control. Actually, we are in control of our remote, and we can decide what we watch and how we engage with our lives.

A lot of us spend our time pressing the rewind button on our remote. That can mean ruminating, thinking about the past, digging up memories, or even traumas. And that might serve a purpose. But too much time in rewind and we lose a sense of the plot. We lose a sense of where we’re going, or what the story is.

Some of us press fast forward. Trying to predict what’s going to happen next month, or next year. When we’re in fast forward, we’re not enjoying the current storyline; instead, we’re always trying to preempt the ending, worrying about the future, and predicting what might happen which can be draining and exhausting. Where’s the joy in that? The joy isn’t in the end of the show; it’s how you get there, and how you fall in love with the characters.

The remote control also has a pause button. This is where you can practice some mindfulness. Pausing might be what you do when you take a pee, or have a drink; it’s about taking time out to recharge your batteries so you can enjoy your life, or your TV show if you like. And then play is what you press after having had your pause, letting life play at its natural pace, and trying to enjoy that moment.’

You can find out more about Tidy Mind Doodles on their website or on YouTube.

This article was reviewed by Dr Rebecca Moore and edited by Anna Ceesay.

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