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The Anxious Artist Experiments With 'Mindful Photography'

Over the last couple of weeks, I have seen myself act impulsively to things/events that have made me feel unsafe. Due to my hypervigilance to any kind of threat, it is not unusual to feel unsafe and to want to be rid of whatever I feel endangers me (or my loved ones) with immediate effect. At these times, when I have reacted in this way, I can often feel embarrassed at my actions, as with hindsight I am able to see that my safety seeking behaviour was unnecessary (or, that is often the case). I feel particularly ashamed if I have pulled someone else into my drama.

It can be extremely hard to take a moment, just one breath even before reacting, but I am doing my best and learning and I believe I am making progress. I am trying to learn to detach and step back and observe myself in those moments when I feel such an overwhelming sense of danger. This detachment can then create enough space for me to consider my options and make a more balanced decision about how I need to respond (if at all), to whatever I think is happening. I try to ask myself if it is the frightened child from many years ago who is responding in that moment; needing to be kept safe but knowing this could not be depended upon? Or, is it my adult self; the self that is in the here and now and who is able to take care of my child self, offer reassurance and respond appropriately? All of this takes a great deal of practice and is perhaps the work of a lifetime. So, I am a novice, but I believe it is well worth persevering.

I am noticing that as I continue on my therapeutic journey, to address past trauma through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), that I am sensing significant threat in the very thing that is supposed to be helping me. The idea of looking at what has caused me so much pain is frightening. There is also part of me that wants to sabotage any potential help, as I have identified with my trauma and assumed it as part of who I am. The pain is extremely unpleasant, but it is familiar. Who will I become without it? Will I know myself? So the sense of threat is evident.

So, on the days I have to make my way into the West End for my therapy, I am a bundle of nerves. For starters, I have been avoiding taking the tube and find the idea of being trapped in a crowd extremely frightening. Although, somehow, I am finding the courage to push through this fear. Part of me knows and is determined to heal and knows it is worth the effort. I always leave my home far too early, because I have ants in my pants. I have 'good' intentions to go to galleries and take in some art. I have tried, but am often not present enough to even register where I am. I often find myself walking the streets until it is time for my therapy. As I walk, I am usually filled with the anxiety about how I need to make the best use of the session; to do it well. Of course, there is no right or wrong way of doing therapy and it is best to deliver myself to the therapist, just as I am. However, this is difficult to do when I am working so hard to avoid my feelings that I have no idea how I am. I also notice I want to please my therapist, to be a 'good patient'. So, as I stomp the streets of London, I am not in the here and now. I am not even in my body; I am dissociated. I feel like I am not part of my surroundings, as though there is a screen between myself and the rest of the world, which I can see into, but cannot be seen. This kind of experience is not unusual for survivors of PTSD.

Between therapy sessions, I have found myself writing a lot, with the hope that getting the confusion of thoughts and feelings out onto paper will allow me to step back enough to be slightly more objective. The work of therapy does not just take place in the hour’s session time, it continues through the week. I feel as though I am permanently preoccupied by it. Sometimes I feel I have hit on some fascinating insights and revelations, as I untangle my chaotic mind, so writing is definitely helpful. However, I have spent many years of doggedly trying to make sense and understand; to get better and back into life. Perhaps there is something to be said for trying less hard and being receptive to whatever emerges when I am not even looking.

Returning to the day of my therapy, which is a Thursday; I thought last week I would try something different. I have a love/hate relationship with my iPhone, but the camera app is one I do enjoy (mostly). I have found it has enabled me to feel more of sense of my surroundings in the present moment. I am interested in the idea of finding beauty in the everyday; the things that are often overlooked and I like taking pictures that speak to whatever it is I may be feeling. Of course, in order to be able to do this, I have to pay some attention to how I am feeling, but I find the wide array of visual aids; when given due attention, offer helpful cues. What is it that draws my attention and why might this be? I suppose you might call this a sort of mindfulness. If that is the case, it is an approach to mindful meditation that I find tolerable.

So, I thought I would share with you, my 'mindful' photographic journey to therapy. Pictures that tell a story of the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing and which document my presence in each moment. I had given my attention to that which is real and in the here and now. In these particular photographs, I notice themes of reflection, showing my presence in spectral forms; but nonetheless present. Or, puddles reflecting my surroundings from a new perspective, almost suggesting of a parallel universe. I notice there is also a playful side in me emerging, as I appreciate and enjoy the varying effects of street lighting, or the interesting shapes of buildings, which I then alter and abstract in editing. As ever, there is a need to acknowledge the presence of nature; a source of safety for me and something I know I can rely on. I am grateful for the many parks and gardens London has to offer.

Off we go!

Firmly rooted.

The Victoria Line.'I am here'.

Am I here?

Underground. 'Easy Energy'.

Shapes and lights. A jolly dance.

Kings Cross.

I made it!

Shapes and lights reframing their surroundings.

Potted garden.

Window sill offerings.

Mother Nature never abandons.

Bright lights dancing on the glass window.

A gift. A reminder of what my mum used to call me. A term of endearment. It means ‘darling‘ in Yiddish. I had no idea! She is present with me.


After the storm.

When the street below overwhelms; look up!

Look up!!

A warm glow.

Unexpected beauty.

A sign of the times…

Another world.

Emerging spectre of light.

Reaching for the heavens.

Thank you for sharing my journey with me. Taking pictures defintiely helped and it’s certainly worth revisiting. It was also helpful knowing that I would be sharing this challenging day with you and that perhaps my exploring might be of benefit to somebody else. I think this gave me a sense of increased purpose and an ability to take a further step back, allowing greater objectivity. So, thank you!

I intend to experiment and find new creative and less threatening ways to permit myself to feel however it is I feel in the moment and to know that it‘s going to be ok. On this day, as I allowed myself to be present; I didn’t notice anything too overwhelming or catastrophic. Yes, I was still anxious, but I was allowing myself to feel that way, instead of resisting and in doing so, I think I felt some relief. I was not manically stomping the streets, but gently wandering and being curious. There’s so much to be curious about. The world is fascinating! So, perhaps the afraid child has an adult paying attention and taking care of her and she will not abandon her, but will keep trying. There are going to be many stumbles along the way, but maybe at those times I can rub something soothing into where it hurts and be less self-critical. We are all children beneath and we all get scared.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

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