Creativity Heals: Why Does Making Things Help Us Feel Better?
When life feels overwhelming, why exactly is it that we reach for a pen, paintbrush, or musical instrument?
To create things is human.
From cave paintings by our earliest ancestors, to pottery and sculptures of the first civilisations, to timeless works of musical composition, to you or I sitting at home doodling on a jotter pad. Making and creating is something that people seem to be simply magnetised towards.
When experiencing illness, trauma, or struggle, many of us turn to creative self-expression. Music, poetry, prose, painting… There are countless examples throughout human history of creative works expressing or working through difficult experiences.
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And throughout history, there’s countless examples of this work in progress.
The foundations of entire genres of music and dance were born from the hardships of slavery. Soldiers and veterans suffering from the horrors of war have found solace in poetry and writing. Even with the barest of materials, prisoners still appeared to find some solace in carving emblems, messages, or pictures onto the walls.
Indeed, in recent decades, art therapy has grown to become a recognised type of psychological therapy. OT programmes are recognising that art classes and making things can be beneficial for all sorts of clients.
More recently, in the lockdowns during COVID-19 pandemic there was a huge boom in the numbers of people taking up creative activities like painting, drawing, colouring, or photography. Personally, I began to write skits and sketches over video calls with my best friend. Meanwhile, I had friends who re-started playing musical instruments they hadn’t picked up for a number of years, or who began sharing poetry they’d written.
For many people who weren’t artists by profession, they’d had little experience with imaginatively creating things since their schooldays. And yet, these creative pursuits suddenly became a comforting way to occupy oneself during lockdown.
I’m certain that for a lot of people, creativity was far more than merely finding a way to pass the time out of boredom. I saw - and felt - that doing, making, and creating things was an active strategy to help ourselves feel soothed and re-emerge from the process feeling that little bit more in control of what was going on around us.
So, what exactly is it about creating that can make us feel better? If not quite healed, we can come away from making something and feel a little better, stronger, or simply more able to get through something.
1. Creating a piece of work offers us a new type of voice and self-expression.
When people are sick, struggling, or disenfranchised, art offers a form of self-expression that can exist outside of the physical body.
Everyone wants and deserves to feel self-actualised and free to express themselves openly. Yet, unfortunately, there are a myriad of factors that can restrict an individual’s ability to feel seen and heard. For instance, experiences of ill health, injury, mental health struggles, and facing prejudice from others.
Those of us who find that society often isn’t built with people like us in mind are likely to have an even greater desire to use art to talk about our experiences. Being able to put one’s thoughts and feelings out into the world in a form that transcends our bodies can be very empowering.
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It can also offer a range of different nuances and styles of expression that we can use when we can’t quite find the words - or if our words might not be listened to.
Many people use their art and expression to try and prompt social change. For others, their artwork doesn’t necessarily need to be shared publicly to feel empowering. Cancer Research UK explains how creativity and art therapy is a very effective tool for patients who want to work through complex emotions and re-gain a sense of control and identity during difficult times.
2. Creativity can help us be pro-active and adapt to life’s challenges.
In times of hardship, it can feel immensely difficult to process and work through our emotions. So, having a process that helps us think dynamically can have huge impacts on our mental health and overall wellbeing.
We may not be able to control everything in the world around us, in our body, or in our mind - but art can help us think creatively about what we can do.
One study in 2015 showed that creativity, self-expression, and exposure to the arts has psychological benefits that can support the brain in profound ways. Activities including painting, drawing, sculpting, pottery, and sewing were shown to delay cognitive decline and to have a protective effect on the brain.
Meanwhile, a study by RHN showed that their patients benefited immensely from having art activities integrated into their rehabilitation plans. Creative tasks could be adapted to help with the recovery process, such as a patient with an arm injury who was using counterweights to help them lift their arm to paint. Meanwhile, for patients being treated for concentration problems or memory loss, tasks like mosaic-making proved beneficial.
In short, when we try new and creative experiences, we’re helping both our body and mind grow more resilient for whatever challenges life might throw at us.
3. Being creative can unlock the powerful process of ‘flow’ state.
Another wonderful advantage to being creative is that its proven to help us unlock ‘flow state’. You might have heard of flow state as being ‘in the zone’. It’s a psychological state where we feel totally focused and in the moment with whatever we’re doing at the time.
When we make something, our brain is far more likely to enter this state. We can focus intently on the task before us. We’re thinking about the physical movements - whether that’s moving a brush or using our vocal cords. And we’re using our imagination to piece together what our work will be like, and how we can best convey it.
|Our brain chemistry can be extremely powerful. And creativity can help us maximise it! - Image by Unsplash|
The neurochemistry behind flow state is very powerful. Our brains release dopamine, endorphins and other chemicals that are pleasure-inducing and help us to focus and gather information very effectively.
Meanwhile, activity in our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reduces significantly. This part of our brain deals with impulse control and self-monitoring - which means it’s often the area that causes us to experience doubt and self-criticism.
So, the results of finding flow state in creativity can be great. Even if we physically can’t escape whatever challenges we’re facing, the neurochemical result of working on a creative project can help us feel calmer, happier, and less self-critical or anxious.
4. Art can be a valuable type of catharsis.
Art doesn’t have to be award-winning or complex to make a difference. It can be a powerful act of self-care to spare a few moments to sing, colour, write, or enjoy whatever creative pursuit you enjoy.
The act of making something can be a joyful process, even if the subject matter is difficult. There’s a labour of love that goes into creating your own pieces. Many artists find that when they are creative they feel more relaxed and at one with themselves. Making something that’s personal and that you’ve invested your time and energy into is extremely rewarding.
The cathartic feeling of ‘expelling’ our negative emotions can be very helpful - but it’s often not always straightforward to reach this place. When we experience something overwhelming or difficult, speaking about it can feel almost impossible. Conventional talking therapies might seem like too much.
Art therapy is a specific type of therapy that leans into the creative process to help patients untangle complex feelings. Those doing art therapy can therefore explore their experiences in a way that might feel safer for them.
It’s especially powerful because it can be be used to help almost*-anyone - regardless of age, ability, language barriers, or social background. As long as a person is willing to use their imagination and be open to creation, anybody can experience the emotional benefits of self-expression
Official art therapy requires a trained therapist to make sure it is done safely and effectively. However, many people still get similar benefits from leaning into their own creativity and using it as an expressive tool in their day-to-day lives.
Simply writing a story, a piece of music, or drawing a picture can be a healthy way of working through what's going on in your body or mind in a way that feels safe and helpful for you.
5. A creative space can offer us an enjoyable, sociable way of focusing healing.
Many people choose to practice their chosen art form as part of a group. Adding a social element to a creative pursuit can be a way of building deep and rich connections with other people, which can be invaluable when we're feeling alone or times are tough.
Often, art therapists set up group sessions where people can join in together to learn, heal, and create. Creating things as a group can help people connect with one another - and often, isolation can be one of the most challenging parts of health struggles or challenging times in life.
Making something together can also help people build up trust 3*and open up conversations that might otherwise have been difficult to initiate. Often, it’s hard to open up to people if we are struggling. But - as long as all participants feel safe and are open to sharing - having a mutual project or shared goal where participants can share ideas and feelings can be a powerful way of connecting people.
Like other types of art therapy, group therapy is something that must be run by a qualified art therapist to be ‘official’. However, for as long as humans have walked the earth, there’s been evidence of like-minded people who want to make, build, and create things together.
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Although we can't always change a situation, we can change the ways we work through it and the approaches we take.
When we break down all these ways that making art and being creative can benefit our body and mind, it’s hardly surprising that the arts have offered solace for so many people throughout human history.
Do you have any particular creative pursuits that you tend to reach for when you're feeling low? Are there any pieces of work that came from a difficult time in your life, but that you're extremely proud of? We'd love to hear about them!
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