Illustrations of characters owned by DC Comics and Nick Jr., drawn by Cynthia Saunders.

Photo by Cynthia Saunders

U.S. Navy Sailor Uses Art To Ease Anxiety

By Justin K. Thomas

May 20, 2017

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.

Petty Officer First Class Cynthia Saunders, a human resource specialist in the U.S. Navy, is one of those 15 million sufferers.

Suffering with social anxiety disorder since childhood has been difficult, said the Virginia Beach, Virginia, resident. But, like many others who have social phobias, Saunders uses painting to help minimize the effects.

“As a kid, I used art as a way to escape the reality of my social anxiety,” Saunders 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.”

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

“Think, think, think”

As a child, Saunders said that people told her she would be better 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 more than a decade, Saunders said that her life has been quite a journey and experience, especially since joining the military in 2005.

My drawings are based on the adventure of the current moment,” she said.

“My life has been a road full of adventures especially during my last 12 years in the Navy, so my drawings are based on the adventure of the current moment,” she said. “I've created over 400 drawings, Saunders said. “I have an immense love for comics because they symbolize the strength in me.”

As to painting superheroes and their enemies, she says that drawing the cover of one of DC Comic’s most iconic titles was proof that inspiration happens in the unlikeliest of places, according to Saunders.

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.”

Providing Hope

Catrice Butler, Saunders’ close friend, 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.”

A fellow artist, Butler said that everyone can have problems, but it’s up to the artist to turn those difficulties into an account that can be a symbol of optimism for others.

“I know some of the strife that has given birth to her passion,” Butler 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 also produces a caffeine-oriented video streaming program on social media called “Coffee Talk.” Her goal for the show is to one day provide a means to teach people how to paint.

“So, ‘Coffee Talk’ was developed after realizing how much love getting Starbucks because I like drawing on their 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 drawing on these cups.”

“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.

Saunders said that her future in art has a bright outlook, and she looks forward to helping more and more people with social anxiety disorders.

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