Historically many studies and links have been made to mental illness and creativity including the positive effects of creativity on mental health. Great philosophy is the notion that our thoughts are not who we are, they do not define us or our identity. Let’s explore the link between creativity and mental health, along with six different creative practices and the proven positive effects they can have on your mental health.
The Link Between Creativity and Mental Health
According to BBC Online Health Editor, Michelle Roberts, creativity is often part of a mental illness, with writers particularly susceptible, according to a study of a million people. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found. As a group though, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people.
“Odd how the creative power at once brings back the whole universe to order” -Virginia Woolf
In 2018 the National Alliance of Mental Health in the USA reported that 19.1% of US adults experienced mental illness (47.6 million people). Our World in Data presents findings that globally across most mental health issues women suffer higher rates of disorders. In 2017, 284 million people suffered from anxiety disorders, as reported by Our World in Data. Females represented 4.7% of the population and males 2.8%. And, 264 million people suffered from depression with females represented at 4.1% to 2.7% males.
Creativity and mental health are often entwined and it’s important to understand and highlight the positive effects creativity can have on mental health.
Why Creativity Is Important
Zorana Ivcevic Pringle from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that people who engaged in everyday forms of creativity tended to be more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those scoring high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to their classmates who engaged less in everyday creative behaviors.
Six Creative Practices For Positive Mental Health
Creative practices can cultivate the process of inner work and mental health. Here are six ideas for building a creative practice:
1. Journaling and Dream Diaries
If you’re someone who is committed to a path of self-discovery, you may already keep a daily journal or diary. Dream diaries are also a way of helping to process your emotions, understand behavioral patterns, or “emotional unfinished business.” Many psychotherapists including Dina Clabaugh from Insight Counseling in Duluth highlight that journaling scientifically lowers cortisol levels and improves sleep, emotional stability, and self-compassion.
Keep a journal next to your bed and start keeping track of your dreams at night. If you wish, set an alarm for a random time at night when you may be more likely to recall your dreams. Or, start a journaling practice. Set a schedule or writing, whether it is daily or by the cycles of the moon.
2. Morning Pages
Julia Cameron’s best-selling book, The Artist’s Way, has a bedrock practice called Morning Pages. You are encouraged to write three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness journaling first thing in the morning. I have kept this practice up for over twenty years along with journaling. I have found it quickly alleviates anxiety or a sense of overwhelming upon waking and provides insightful clues to your inner life and behavioral patterns.
The best practice, when you can achieve it, is to immediately start writing upon waking without introducing a new stimulus. So no reaching for the phone or other devices beforehand if possible. Three long foolscap pages of writing without thought, whatever comes to mind when it does. Part of the practice also is to not read over the pages once they are written, this comes at a later date in the practice.
3. Art Therapy
While talk therapy is the basis for psychotherapy and counseling, art therapy can offer creative expression and relief from stress, anxiety and even more severe mental health issues. Language exists in a different part of the brain to creativity, emotions, and memory. If someone has experienced trauma, they may find it difficult to talk about it or relive it.
Art Therapy includes modalities that don’t require language.
A few interesting Art Therapy practices: Psychodrama, Sandplay Therapy, and Lyrical Dance are outlined in more detail below.
The method of Psychodrama was created by Romanian-born Psychiatrist Dr. Jacob Levy Moreno (1889-1974) and further developed in collaboration with his wife, Zerka Moreno. It is a form of psychotherapy in which patients act out events from their past. Using creativity combined with group dynamics and role theory, its aim is to help clients gain a new perspective through a better understanding of their own roles in life. Psychodrama includes elements of theater, often conducted on a stage, or a space that serves as a staging area, where props can be used.
Thérese Mavros is a coach and mentor based in Melbourne Australia, who has been practicing Psychodrama for 2.5 years and believes it has changed her life. Therese explained that as someone who is eloquent enough to talk her way out of most things (or into most things) she could convince a psychologist that she was “fine” even when she knew she was not.
“With Psychodrama, it’s full body and your own ‘stuff’ sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise...in the best possible way. Concretizing a strong emotion or feeling at the moment can literally free it from your body. You stare at it, ‘out there’ and suddenly it doesn’t control you anymore. I’ve got this, you say out loud… as you take that emotion you no longer wish to carry and throw it out the window!” Choose props wisely, she laughingly says.
This action-based method has become a game-changer, not just for Therese’s life but for assisting friends and future clients. Therese says, “You can retell a scene from your life and change the ending; rewiring your cellular memory around an old wound. Not to mention what you can do with scenarios you haven’t lived yet but want to manifest”.
Search for a local Psychodrama workshop or training session in your local area (check out Onsite Workshops for psychodrama training based in Tennessee, U.S., or AANZPA based in Australia and New Zealand).
5. Sandplay Therapy
Sandplay Therapy was developed in the late 1950s by psychologist Dora Kalff who combined several techniques and philosophies (including Jungian theory) to come up with her own therapeutic approach. She specifically recognized that clients using creativity to express feelings, release anti-anxiety chemicals in the brain. These chemicals are opioids and oxytocin. They create a feeling of being safe. Clients begin to feel calm and psychologically strong. They progressively gain a deep sense of well-being, resulting in their immune system becomes stronger. Furthermore, they progressively sense that there is meaning in life.
The set-up is a specific tray table with a blue base covered with sand. The play therapist has shelves stocked with a variety of small items. Animals, trees, people, little toys...The client will select the ones they are drawn to and take them to the sand tray. The therapist will ask them to make a scene about their current situation and encourage them to represent their inner world on the sand tray.
“Sandplay therapy is great for children or adults who haven’t developed language yet or have neurological and trauma issues that they can’t express themselves verbally ” -Elizabeth Wells, Early Childhood Educator
6. Lyrical Dance
I have suffered from Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) and Adenomyosis for many years. These are conditions that seriously affect mood, anxiety, and mental function. I have been reaching out to other women also diagnosed with these conditions and exploring holistic approaches to healing.
Bec Bell is a dancer and mother based in Adelaide Australia. Bec also suffers from PMDD. Dancing has been an incredible support for her mental health as she moves into her third year of contemporary lyrical dance which is a perfect medley of ballet, modern, and jazz dance techniques, with a poetic and expressive quality. Bec adds that her teacher is very passionate about neuroscience and the importance of dance and movement on our ability to cope, create flexibility
Bec’s passion to find alternative creative methods is also further fueled by the death of her mother who passed away earlier this year and was a prolific artist who struggled and fought bravely through mental health issues.
“Dance. It’s more than just entertainment. It’s showing up when you’re not feeling it, it’s accepting where you’re at but also pushing beyond what you think you’re capable of, it’s losing your inhibitions while also respecting the rules, it’s celebrating your strengths while delighting in others. The dance of life.” -Bec Bell, Dancer
The First Step: Ask For Help
The most courageous thing we can do in times when we struggle with our mental health is to reach out and ask for help, particularly if we have been experiencing these feelings for an extended time.
“Mental health is not a destination but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going.” -Noam Shpancer
A conversation about what we are experiencing can lead to multiple avenues for support. Holistic and creative therapies recognize the importance of the mind-body connection and the incredible benefits of the power of creativity on our ability to cope with life’s ongoing challenges and changes.