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Art Heals

Creativity for Well-Being and Mental Health

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The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see."

- John Ruskin

For thousands of years, arts like singing, painting, and dancing have been used for healing purposes. The act of imagination is an act of survival that prepares us to imagine possibilities and hopefully survive those possibilities. Through creativity and imagination, we become better, and more whole human beings. 

Artistic creation is the elemental human act. Artists construct a complex, coherent representation of the world when creating pictures, poems, plans, strategies, or stories. That’s what all of us are doing every minute as we’re looking around. We’re all artists of a sort. The universe is a silent, colorless place. It’s just waves and particles out there. Using our imaginations, we construct colors and sounds, tastes and stories, drama, laughter, joy, and sorrow to interpret our experiences.

Paintings, poems, novels, and music help multiply and refine the models we use to perceive and construct reality. By attending to great perceivers, such as Louis Armstrong, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jane Austen, we can more subtly understand what is going on around us and become better at expressing what we see and feel.
Our way of perceiving the world is also our way of being in the world. Once our eyes have been trained to see, even just a bit, the way Rembrandt saw, if our hearts can feel as deeply as a Leonard Cohen song, if we understand people with as much complexity as Shakespeare did then we enhance our ability to live full lives.

In 2019 the World Health Organization, 2019 wrote,  "The arts contribute to core determinants of health; playing a critical role in health promotion; helping to prevent the onset of mental illness and age-related physical decline; supporting the treatment or management of mental illness, noncommunicable diseases and neurological disorders; and assisting in acute and end-of-life care.”

Arts support healing by bringing emotional, somatic, artistic, and spiritual dimensions to complement the biomedical view by focusing on not only sickness and symptoms but the holistic nature of the entire person.103 

Health psychologists are studying how the arts can be used to heal emotional injuries, increase understanding of oneself and others, develop a capacity for self-reflection, reduce symptoms, and alter behaviors and thinking patterns. 
Practicing art we discover and explore our identity and our reservoir of healing. The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.

Chronic illnesses are a national burden, with cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death and the incidence of diabetes continuing to increase to the point where more than 20 million Americans now suffer.3,4 These diseases are associated with psychosocial challenges such as depression5 and chronic stress and are primary contributors to negative cardiovascular outcomes.6,7 By alleviating stress and depression, creative activities can reduce the burden of these and other chronic diseases.

What’s compelling about creative arts is its accessibility. Anyone can make something meaningful, there are countless outlets for expression.  The good news for those who didn’t excel at art during childhood is that the beneficial effects happen during the art process. They are not based on the end product.
Social Science Research:
The hard sciences help us understand the natural world. The social sciences help us measure behavior patterns across populations. There are clear indications that artistic engagement has positive effects on health. Studies reviewed indicate that creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances.

  • Research shows that creative expression changes the same parts of the brain used for social connections

  • Making art has powerful physiological effects on our bodies: reducing blood pressure, bolstering our immune system, improving brain cognition, and fighting inflammation.

  • Increases serotonin and cortisol levels.

  • Increases blood flow to the part of the brain associated with pleasure.

  • Creative expression has the power to improve well-being by helping us understand ourselves and shifting perspectives that reinforce positive behaviors.

  • When people are invited to work with creative and artistic processes that separate their identity from their illness, they are more able to “create congruence between their affective states and their conceptual sense making.”104(p53)

Laurel Healy, LCSW, says, “Engaging in a creative process, like singing, dancing, painting or drawing, has full-body benefits. When we focus on something challenging and/or fun, we make new neuropathways, increasing connectivity in the brain…Increased connectivity, especially in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, makes us more emotionally resilient in a way that is similar to what occurs when we meditate. The release of dopamine brings an enhanced sense of well-being as well as improved motivation,”
Arts in Healthcare
Arts in healthcare can be approached in two ways: Arts in Health and Creative Arts Therapies.

  • Arts in Health involves trained artists who help patients have positive creative experiences in healthcare settings. It can also refer to art displayed in physical spaces where healthcare is provided, such as hospitals, care facilities, etc. This may include art on the walls, musical performances in the lobby, and healing gardens.

  • On the other hand, Creative Arts Therapies involve licensed professionals who use different types of art, such as visual art, dance, music, poetry, or drama, to engage patients in addressing specific conditions or health goals. There are corresponding licenses for each type of art specialization.

Patients of all types overwhelmingly express comfort with the process and a desire to continue with therapy. The minimum effective art dose is thought to be around two hours per week

Medical Students:
Several recent studies have shown how effective art education can be in training future doctors. Professors argue that engaging in the arts during medical school, whether through required courses or extracurricular activities, is valuable in developing essential skills that doctors need, like critical thinking and observational and communication skills, as well as bias awareness and empathy.

While medical students traditionally enter their first year with very high levels of empathy, after three years, research has shown, that exposure to content around death and suffering can cause those levels to plummet. Engagement in the humanities can rectify this problem. Courses in art appreciation and painting helped them to stop, slow down, and be more intentional while seeing; to pick up on details that could easily be missed; and to better articulate descriptions of things that “at first seem indescribable.”

Students’ capacities for personal reflection, tolerance for ambiguity, and personal bias awareness all increased. Most significantly, however, was their improvement in reflection—their ability to understand a situation from different points of view, to empathize with another person’s dilemma, and to acknowledge different ways of thinking.

One particularly original exercise asked students to partner up to paint. One student was given a postcard with a famous Impressionist painting on it, while the other student, who could not see the card, stood at a canvas with a paintbrush in hand, and had to ask their partner questions about the painting to reproduce it. “The painter becomes like the physician who’s taking a history and trying to get information from the patient,” Dr. Flanagan said. “They experience firsthand how much easier it is to gain information when you ask open-ended questions when you stop and let that patient tell their story.”

Aging Adults:
Older adults who engaged in any recreational arts in the previous 12 months had significantly better mental well-being and physical health than those who did not engage in the arts at all. 

The title of a recent documentary film, I Remember Better When I Paint, sums up the findings of a growing body of research into the cognitive effects of making art. The movie demonstrates how drawing and painting stimulated memories in people with dementia and enabled them to reconnect with the world. People with dementia aren't the only beneficiaries. Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer, too. And doing so has been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in healthy older people.

Expressing yourself through artistic and creative activities is like a prescription for your mental health. Turning to creativity has been proven in extensive research to relieve both stress and anxiety. Creativity also helps lessen the shame, anger, and depression felt by those who have experienced trauma.1

The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has an art therapy program for soldiers with PTSD. Veterans often find it difficult to express their trauma verbally. Art therapy manager Tammy Shella, Ph.D., ATR-BC, says, “Through art therapy, patients can convey how they feel on the inside and reveal things that they weren’t comfortable sharing with the world.”1

Art therapy provides a metaphorical way to address the complex inner struggles of service members. Through art, they can slowly begin to communicate more openly about previously unsayable, shameful, or even taboo topics. They are better able to name their emotional experiences, and they use more words to express themselves.

But... Such is War
A few years ago I saw an exhibition by Martha’s Vineyard artist Steve Maxner at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum titled “But… Such is War”. It documents Steve’s processing of his Vietnam experiences through found objects washed up on the beach near his home. I found it extremely moving and I invite you to take the time to follow the link and peruse the artworks below as well as the catalog from the show.

Art helps people express experiences that are too difficult to put into words, such as a diagnosis of cancer. Some people with cancer find that exploring the meanings of past, present, and future during art therapy, helps to integrate cancer into their life story and give it meaning.55  Participants said it helped them focus on positive life experiences, relieving their ongoing preoccupation with cancer. They felt it enhanced their self-worth and identity by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement. Third, it enabled them to maintain a social identity that resisted being defined by cancer. Finally, it allowed them to express their feelings symbolically, especially during chemotherapy.

Are you lonely? You are not alone. Being lonely is more than just being alone. It is an emotion you experience when there is a gap between the social connections you desire and what you have. It often carries a stigma and a feeling of being flawed or an outcast. More than half (58%) of U.S. adults reported feelings of loneliness in 2021. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with a 30% increased risk of heart attack, stroke, or death. 

Creativity is uniquely suited to address our current pervasive loneliness. Art engages, inspires, empowers and connects. Making things allows us to connect with ourselves and others more deeply. The same part of the brain that controls social connections is stimulated by making things. When we are curious about the world and others we invite new perspectives, new possibilities, and authentic conversations about what matters.

Art can be a refuge from the intense emotions associated with illness and loss.65 There are no limits to the imagination in finding creative ways of expressing grief. Working with clay can be a powerful way to help people express these feelings through tactile involvement at a somatic level. Creativity in its many forms can enhance verbal communication, produce cathartic release, and reveal unconscious materials and symbols that cannot be expressed through words.66

The Search for Meaning:
The search for meaning and relevance from our personal experiences of depression, stress, anxiety, grief, and loneliness is one of the fundamental forces in all artistic creation. The highly sensitive artist is almost a stereotype. Our artwork becomes a reflection of ourselves, sharing our unique perspective and individuality. What we create becomes a symbol of who we are, a personal artifact that tells our story. Engaging in creativity connects us to a deeper search for meaning in the world. 

Just looking at art can be healing. Creative expression can sometimes articulate what words can’t, helping to bring complex or difficult thoughts and feelings into view. When you go to the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, you don’t just see Picasso’s “Guernica”; forever after you see war through that painting’s lens. You see, or rather feel, the wailing mother, the screaming horse, the chaotic jumble of death and agony, and it becomes less possible to romanticize warfare. We don’t just see paintings; we see according to them.

Art Therapy:
There are multiple studies documenting the benefits of art therapy for a variety of conditions. It is especially helpful for stress, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and cancer diagnosis.

The goal of Art therapy is to change the way you see yourself. To enhance your self-worth and identity by providing you with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement.

Art therapy is founded on the assumption that everyone is creative and capable of self-expression. The art therapist's job is to create a safe environment that allows clients to express themselves and communicate without worrying about whether they have great visual arts skills or whether their artwork is technically brilliant. Art therapy clinicians focus on the process of making rather than the artistic product, which allows clients to gain insights into their situations and develop inner emotional resilience. Therapy sessions—in groups or with individuals—provide time for engaging all the senses and integrating these aesthetic experiences so that participants can reimagine and rework established neural pathways to establish new ways of seeing, thinking, and experiencing.

Art therapists can channel maladaptive or dangerous instincts into creative products allowing clients to communicate and work through difficult thoughts and complex emotions. They guide a person toward taking risks in art making rather than engaging in risky behaviors in their outside life. These creative choices fulfill the brain’s desire for novelty without compromising personal safety. Rather than punch another human being, for instance, someone with aggressive tendencies could work with materials such as clay and wood that can absorb their energy and transform it into a creative product.

But what about most of us who don’t ever go to an actual art therapist? Can art help us? Many artists will tell you that making art is therapeutic and calming, that it helps you calm distracting, negative, and unhelpful thoughts, and that it gets your hands and body working as opposed to only your mind.

Every child knows that making art, singing songs, playing games, and moving the body feels good. Science has also proven that each of those things has multiple cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits. Some of the healthiest, most well-balanced adults are those who remember a bit about being a child while living in an adult body. 

Scientists have established that having fun increases dopamine and that engaging with art (as a viewer or creator) is a healthier way to raise dopamine, compared to many other pleasure-reward sources.

There are many ways to incorporate the benefits of creativity into your life. We are all creative in some way. Your creative impulses may show themselves through cooking, decorating, gardening, social media, business, and other not-overtly-artistic (but still creative) expressions. These are all wonderful and have benefits! You may be bohemian, whimsical, or artsy and it's OK if you are more sporty or more practical. Get to know your unique expressive style. Adjust your expectations for the kind of creative output that may come more naturally, depending on your experiences and your personality. 

Choose an art form that makes you feel good. For one person, this may be listening to music; for another person, it could be singing, dancing, painting, or photography.  Whether it’s a poem, a doodle, or a musical, art – in all its forms – captures ideas, conveys emotion, unpacks experiences, and reveals perspectives reflective of individual and collective circumstances. Art unifies us with a shared sense of reality that helps us feel connected and make sense of the world. 

Ask yourself, “What am I inspired to do with my life, right now?” “How can I contribute to the collective?” “What can I create with my unique ideas, energy, attitude, and talents?” I am passionate about art and love helping others open up creatively, which is why I write this newsletter! 

Aim to find YOUR growing edge, where you can stretch yourself a little--design something, make something, write something, teach something, or start a new program. We all have something we can share, something to offer the world. Putting your ideas or your actual physical products into the world is a creative act.

Sing or Play Music
Music bonds us. According to researchers, when we harmonize or synchronize with others, we have more positive feelings toward them.3 This occurs even if they aren’t in the same room. Singing raises oxytocin levels in both amateur and professional singers. If you’re not enamored with singing, you might just listen to music. Simply listening to music releases oxytocin. Music directly impacts oxytocin levels and oxytocin affects our ability to trust and socially connect to others.

Dancing is not only fun, it’s healthy for you to move with music. Studies have shown that dancing relieves anxiety, improves the quality of life for breast cancer patients, and lowers the risk of dementia for older people.

What is surprising in the research is that the benefit wasn’t due to physical exercise alone. Compared to other forms of exercise, dancing was the only exercise that made a difference.4

Play isn’t just kid stuff. It’s also beneficial for adults. The National Institute for Play underscores the research that already exists on play: “A huge amount of existing scientific research—from neurophysiology, developmental and cognitive psychology, to animal play behavior, and evolutionary and molecular biology—contains rich data on play. The existing research describes patterns and states of play and explains how play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and ballasts our emotions.”5

While playing or storytelling might seem unimportant in the moment, there are long-lasting psychological and developmental benefits that accrue from play. Jennifer A. Perry, former VP of worldwide publishing at Sesame Workshop and executive director of Perry Educational Projects Consulting, says, "By exploring imagination and creativity through art, storytelling, interactive games, music, and all kinds of play, children learn lifelong skills... how to express themselves, communicate with others, problem solve, develop self-confidence, appreciate diverse ideas and cultures, and find things that make them feel fulfilled and happy."

Poetry is consoling in times of unrest and pain, illness and grief. The poet Richard Wright wrote more than 4,000 haiku during his last year of illness in Paris. Wright’s daughter Julia said he continued “to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness.” Art works like that and serves like that.

Making Art
Creating art provides a simple, tangible opportunity for a person to accomplish a task and build confidence and self-esteem. Many people realize that the process of creating something is soothing, a sort of meditation. You might use art to support your well-being without even thinking about it. For example, you might doodle when you feel stressed or enjoy playing an instrument at the end of a long day. Artistic expression and appreciation are not only enjoyable but also have the potential to benefit your well-being. 

Making things is a great way to feel more empowered and connected to ourselves and others. allow us to understand and share our story. Even the simplest art, like a Japanese Enso, is layered with complexity. It's like William Blake’s idea of “the world in a grain of sand.” The more you look, the more ideas reveal themselves, whether the art is simple or complex. It takes time and patience to find, examine, and consider the endless options art offers.

My favorite things about art are the JOY of inspiration, the meditative calmness of making something, and the thrill of seeing the end product. There are many ways to experience those rewards, however, each reflecting our unique personality.

An interesting study looked at how novel media such as virtual reality can promote creative expression and physical activity, while also breaking down fears among many participants that they are not good at creating art. People don’t seem to associate the same stigmas and fears with creating in virtual reality as in traditional art media. This, in turn, helps participants engage in self-expression that they might not otherwise have had the confidence to explore.

Virtual reality provides an alternate universe where participants can move through objects, create structures that defy gravity, and step in and out of their creations. After creating in such a space, people often feel energized with a sense of creative possibility that they had not previously imagined. Though intangible, these digital experiences can help people appreciate the physical world in new ways, and technology such as 3D printing could soon help us make some digital creative experiences more tactile. As a result, virtual reality art therapy could be useful for patients with debilitating injuries and those who feel psychologically stuck in their life patterns.

Looking at Art:
It isn’t necessary to create to be changed by art. Experiences with great artworks deepen us in ways that are hard to describe. Great art connects you to a moment, yourself, and others. To visit Chartres Cathedral or finish “The Brothers Karamazov” is not about acquiring new facts but to feel somehow elevated, enlarged, altered.

Perception is not a straightforward act. You don’t open your eyes and ears and record the data that floods in, the way in those old cameras light was recorded on film. Instead, perception is a creative act. You take what you’ve experienced during the whole course of your life, the models you’ve stored up in your head, and you apply them to help you interpret all the ambiguous data your senses pick up, to help you discern what matters, what you desire, what you find admirable and what you find contemptible. 

Consuming culture expands your emotional knowledge and wisdom; it helps you take a richer and more meaningful view of your own experiences; it helps you understand, at least a bit, the depths of what’s going on in the people right around you. It provides ways to imagine a more hopeful future.

A 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal looked at both passive (viewing) and active (participatory) arts engagement. More people in the study engaged in passive art experiences, and those experiences resulted in statistically significant improvements in quality of life, perceived health, and sense of belonging. Those who made art experienced even greater improvements in quality of life and perceived health. The art-makers additionally had statistically significant improvements in spiritual well-being, sense of meaning, and peace.

A study from the University of Westminster in England proved this with a lunchtime art intervention. The research team had people come into a gallery over their lunch breaks, look at art, fill out a survey, and have their salivary cortisol (a physiologic indicator of stress) levels checked. Looking at art dropped cortisol significantly—to levels it would have taken 5 hours to reach otherwise. Survey results indicated that this simple intervention also enhanced mood and relaxation. The conclusion: looking at art results in rapid normalization of stress.

If you’re not feeling the way you want to feel, Ask yourself which creative actions you might take to shift your emotions in this moment. Bake cookies, walk on the beach, paint, dance, sing? Start simmering an enlivening stew of possible actions that light you up.

You might find that classes are the best way for you to find a safe space to explore and share your thoughts and feelings, even the ones that are hard to talk about. A single Google search will turn up dozens of inspiring classes at local museums, guilds, colleges, and community centers. There are hundreds of opportunities for you to foster new ways of thinking, and new connections, and to enlarge your heart and your mind. The world of art is inviting you to explore and join in the very human search for meaning.

Surround Yourself with Beauty
Looking at art, having art in your work/home space, and surrounding yourself with plants and natural light can make a profound difference in your quality of life. Making art, playing music, dancing, writing, or doing another creative activity can take the benefits even further. 

A study titled “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning Through Immersion in Natural Settings" showed how nature affects creativity.6 A group of hikers who spent four days immersed in nature and disconnected from technological devices increased performance on a creativity/problem-solving task by 50%.

Nature in this study provided emotionally positive stimuli. By reducing the usage of phones and computers, those in the study weren’t switching tasks or multi-tasking, attending to sudden events, maintaining task goals, or inhibiting irrelevant actions. Therefore, spending quality time in nature improved their creativity test scores.

So, when you are stumped by problems, feeling low or frustrated, move away from the computer. It helps to think creatively about solutions and alternative options while walking in the garden or hiking in the park.

Data from Environmental Psychology literature tells us that employees are happier, take fewer sick days, and feel more productive (up to 15% more!) if their workspace includes natural light, art, plants, and attractive design elements. Beautiful environments are inspiring places to work. The energy of a space matters, and surrounding ourselves with attractive things has a calming, pleasing effect on the mind and body.

Heal yourself, Heal the world, Make More Art…

Please take the time to read this wonderful article by David Brooks from the New York times on How Art can Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society

We are all artists in this life, constantly creating with the different tools and talents at our disposal. Self-expression is good for stress, mood, and anxiety. Making art may additionally reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and improve mood and resiliency. So, step away from your routine, indulge yourself in playful and fun activities. Creating art, singing, dancing, and playing will not only make you feel good, it will renew and revitalize you.

Creativity is inspiring, and feeling inspired is fun! Fun enhances our sense of connection (to others, self, and life). It reduces stress and increases happiness. 

Creativity guides you to your purpose and to your ideal clients. It can help your business bloom, and your life stay fulfilling.

Creative self-expression is a part of being a balanced, self-actualized human. It doesn’t matter what sort of creativity you express or if you consider yourself artistic. Making art is ultimately just a clever way to benefit from your own LOVE. Put your heart into any artistic process, and joy and healing will result.

I hope I have inspired you to use your imagination and creativity to fully express and heal yourself. My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to you for creating new possibilities for healing and expanding yourself through art. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

If someone shared this newsletter with you and you'd like to subscribe, please reach out to me below with your email address. I promise, no spam, no overloading your inbox, just the good stuff.

 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight



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