When we learn that we have a serious illness, we may be overwhelmed with emotion and barely able to think straight. Bernie Siegel, MD, who wrote Love, Medicine & Miracles, a groundbreaking book on the power of attitude and outlook on healing, suggests a strategy that can help us cope. He says that we should get out our crayons and markers and draw—yes, draw. This can help relieve our fears and anxiety—and may even give us insight into feelings we are not consciously aware of.
Just as the psychotherapist Carl Jung once diagnosed a brain tumor based only on images in a patient’s dreams, images can give reliable hints about what’s happening in the body.
Suppose that a patient draws a stream with a beaver dam. The stream could represent the coronary arteries, and the dam might indicate that those vessels are blocked. This might sound far-fetched, but real-life stories indicate that people can visualize their internal structures.
Even when the images that we imagine and draw aren’t literally true, they can provide important insights. I once looked at a picture that was drawn by a child with cerebral palsy. She drew her house, which in real life had many flights of stairs, in flaming red. The red symbolized the angst she felt in a house that she was physically unable to navigate.
Start with a sheet of white paper and every possible color of crayon or marker. Take a few moments to think about what you want to draw. It doesn’t have to be about a symptom or a treatment—let your instincts tell you what to draw.
Set it aside. While you’re drawing, your emotions and unconscious mind are at work. Just the act of drawing can have a calming effect, but there also may be meanings present in the drawing. A day later, when you look at the picture again, you may be able to see it intellectually and extract the meanings. What to look for…
Context. One part of a drawing gets meaning from other parts. Cancer patients often draw themselves, then show the cancer on another part of the page. They can’t admit that the disease is a part of them.
Content. It always means something when you choose a particular image. A patient starting chemotherapy, for example, might show a devil giving poison.
Sometimes what we don’t draw is important. Perhaps you drew a human figure without hands. It could be that you’re struggling to get a grip on things or that you’re unable to reach out for what you need.
Examine relationships. Did you draw a figure sitting alone on a couch, perhaps with other figures on a different part of the page? This indicates a sense of loneliness and isolation.
Show it to others. Often we have trouble interpreting our own drawings. Different people will see different things—and their opinions will spark conversations that can lead to further insights.
Consider emotion. Your feelings will come out in every drawing. I’ve known cancer patients who were so frightened by chemotherapy that they initially refused to have it. But then they would show me beautiful pictures with symbols of health, indicating that they knew, intuitively, that the treatment was right.
Source: Bernie Siegel, MD, founder of Exceptional Cancer Patients, a form of individual and group therapy. A retired surgeon based in Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is author of the best seller Love, Medicine & Miracles (Morrow). His most recent book, with Jennifer Sander, is Faith, Hope & Healing: Inspiring Lessons Learned from People Living with Cancer (Wiley). www.BernieSiegelMD.com