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Mace & Crown | May 25, 2017

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Local Artist Uses Art to Ease Anxiety

Local Artist Uses Art to Ease Anxiety

Justin K. Thomas | Contributing Writer

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that nearly 15 million Americans adults suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations. People with this disorder, which is also called social phobia, may have few or no social or romantic relationships, making them feel alone, powerless or even ashamed, according to the ADAA.

One of those 15 million Americans is Cynthia Saunders. Saunders, a resident of Virginia Beach, states that living with a social anxiety disorder has been difficult since childhood, but she says that painting has been her best outlet to help herself and others minimize the effects of the disorder.

“As a kid, I used art as a way to escape the reality of my social anxiety,” she said. “I was a very quiet and shy kid, and drawing helped me to cope. As an adult, I became very ill when I developed a neurological condition which affected my head, speech, and hand movement. Since the condition has worsened, I have used art as a method to help with my hand and cognitive issues.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, social anxiety disorder is a very common mental disorder that usually begins in early to mid-teens, although it can sometimes start in early childhood. Several factors can increase the risk of developing a social anxiety disorder, which includes family predisposition, negative experiences and having a health condition that draws attention from others such as a physical disfigurement or a vocal stutter.

Saunders stated that as a child, many people told her that she would be best suited for something other than art. However, she was determined to get better and found a character, created by A.A. Milne, as a source of inspiration.   

“I started drawing heavily in elementary school after being repeatedly told that art wasn’t for me,” she said. “I was determined to learn to draw, so I practiced painting Winnie the Pooh over and over until I could do it.”

For over a decade, Saunders says that her life has been quite a journey and experience, especially since joining the military.

“My life has been a road full of adventures especially during my last 12 plus years in the Navy, so my drawings are based on the adventure of the current moment,” Saunders said. “I’ve created over 400 drawings [that range from comic book characters to designs that focus more on children’s books]. I have an immense love for comics because they symbolize the strength in me.”

Saunders says that drawing one of DC Comic’s most iconic titles was proof that inspiration happens in the unlikeliest of places.

“’The Killing Joke’ cover done in March of 2017 was by far the most detailed piece that I have ever drawn,” Saunders said. “I started drawing it in my car while waiting for an appointment and finished shortly after getting home, which was about a total of five hours. It was proof that if you put your mind to it, you can finish anything. I never imagined doing a piece like that.”

“Psychology Today” suggests that a person suffering from a social anxiety disorder can minimize their fears in a variety of ways. Breathing slowly and deeply helps to ease stress, and while anxiety turns your attention inward, you can shift the focus of your attention to something else by creating tangible goals and listing negative exposures that you can gradually bare upon yourself.

Cynthia Saunders, seen here drawing a dragon in her home studio. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Saunders

According to Catrice Butler, a close friend of Saunders, she says that she sees a sense of spirit and courage in Saunders’ artwork.

“When I look at her art, I see hope, resilience and I see what faith and hard work can do for a person,” Butler said. “Her work has a silent power to it. The way she takes her illustrations and turns her problems into beauty and happiness is amazing. You can look at a piece and feel at least a small bit of the energy she has put in.”

As a fellow artist, Butler states that everyone can have problems, but it’s up to the person to take those difficulties and make them into an account that it can be told to the world.

“I know some of the strife that has given birth to her passion,” she said. “It has always been there. But as with most things, like a photograph being developed, the darkness has brought the real picture to light. I see what she has done and what she is currently doing, and I am given a newfound zest for art. She has shown me that even if we are broken, we have a story that needs to be told and a gift that needs to be given. And for that, I thank her!”

In addition to drawing, Saunders produces a caffeine-oriented video streaming program on social media titled “Coffee Talk.”

“So, “Coffee Talk” was developed after realizing how much I love getting Starbucks because I like drawing on the cups,” Saunders said. “I was so pumped to share how happy I was because people love my work. So, I started sharing the story on Facebook, and it’s become a routine. The show focuses on how great and exciting art can be and how it can convey positive ‘vibes’ for other people. I’m currently in the process of developing a segment where I can share a step by step tutorial for my artwork.”

Saunders believes that her future in art has a bright outlook and she looks forward to helping more people with social anxiety disorders. Currently, she is planning to have a book published in late 2017 depicting the step-by-step process she uses to create her paintings.

“I see a future full of thousands of my art pieces shared all over the world,” she said. “Each one telling a unique story or making someone’s wish of their favorite character coming to life.”