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Creativity And Mental Health: Building Resilience Through Play

Creativity and Mental Health

Do you have a creative outlet in your life? Maybe you journal, paint, dance, knit, code, doodle, or sing in the shower. How does it make you feel? For many people, a creative outlet can provide an important steam release valve—and that’s not all it can do. The benefits of creativity are so numerous that we really can’t afford to neglect this basic part of human nature. 

If you answered no to the above question, don’t despair. Every single person has creative potential inside them and it’s never too late to start. You don’t have to be “good” and you don’t have to devote hours to a creative endeavor to reap the benefits. Creative play is a time when you can release the critical faculty. There’s no need to produce something incredible. And who knows! Maybe you’ll surprise yourself.

We spent some time with Rachael Jones, our resident expert on Art Therapy to learn more about the role that creativity can take in healing. Read on to discover the many ways that creative play enhances mental health and cognition.

Mental Health Benefits of Creativity

It is a popular idea in our accounts of the great artists of the past that many were psychologically abnormal, troubled, or struggled through tragic circumstances. While this is certainly true of some of the greats (think of Van Gogh) it should be noted that many genius level artists of the past and present exhibit strong mental health, though of course every person deals with difficulties and tragedies in their life.

Why bring this up? It is important that we view creativity through the correct lens. It is not a byproduct of a troubled mind but instead a powerful, natural coping mechanism and a way for the mind to begin to heal itself through abstraction.

A number of beneficial things happen in the brain when you engage in a creative process. As mentioned above, our critical judgments about ourselves are temporarily disengaged. Studies actually show that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain thought to be responsible for self-awareness or “metacognition”, is temporarily deactivated when engaging the creative mind-set (read more about that here). At the same time, feel-good chemicals (endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine) are released in great quantities in the brain during creative endeavors. 

Creativity can also give us a way to express emotions and process traumas that we otherwise can’t express. It may be challenging to put something into words, but channeling it into a painting, drawing, or song might allow you to experience and even release a thought or memory that is causing you to suffer.

According to Rachael Jones, MA, LLPC, “Utilizing Art Therapy techniques in counseling sessions allows clients to create and process the narrative of their trauma, allowing space for the client to release feelings regarding the traumatic event.”

That’s not all Art Therapy can do though. Jones says it can also “…help explore feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.”

Cognitive Benefits of Creativity

In addition to the mental health benefits of creativity, science has also found links between creativity and enhanced cognition.

Cognitive and language skills both markedly improved in individuals committed to the study of a musical instrument. Music is unique in that it activates and strengthens the connection between both halves of the brain, engaging both analytical and creative at once. This bilateral activation is extremely beneficial for strengthening problem solving skills, where creative thinking must engage with logical reality. Interestingly, incorporating rhythm into non-musical activities such as walking or exercise can also strengthen the brain bilaterally to some extent (read more about music’s effect on cognition here).

And it turns out that your friends with a flair for the dramatic may be onto something as well. A study of older adults found that engaging in theatre arts for 4 weeks had numerous benefits to both cognition and well-being, more so than engaging in visual arts for the same amount of time. It’s possible that some of this effect came from the social and physical elements of theatre, but either way it seems play-acting and imagining can do a lot for your health and cognition.

What Is Art Therapy Like?

Rachael Jones uses both traditional talk therapy and art therapy in her practice at the Truism Center. 

“For some clients, I utilize art therapy in every session, where for others it is used once in a while.”

Art therapy can involve a variety of mediums like colored pencils, crayons, markers, paint, clay, ink, collage, found objects, and digital media. 

“With the increase of telehealth over the last year,” says Jones, “I’ve been finding creative ways to utilize what my clients have in their homes.”

The therapist generally gives the client a prompt based on goals and topics discussed in the session. The client is given time to work on their piece, from just a few minutes up to several sessions. After the piece is completed the therapist and client discuss what the experience was like and what thoughts, feelings, or themes are associated with the piece.

So how much creative play should someone get each week, according to an Art Therapist?

“I encourage taking time at least once a week to give space for creative play and self-expression.”

Most importantly perhaps is the knowledge that you need no training or preparation to get started. Jones says this is something that anyone can do.

“I believe that we all have a place for self-expression and creativity.”