Photo: Dr. Deanna Minich
How Art Is Healing
When was the last time you did something creative simply for the joy of making something beautiful or expressing yourself? For many, the answer is “It’s been a while.” It is common for creative endeavors to be pushed aside and left for when there is time—a resource there is often too little of. Even those in the creative fields frequently find they have to sacrifice the pure joy of creating in order to produce something to make ends meet.
If you are not giving yourself time to indulge your creative energies, then you might be missing out on a vital piece of your overall health and well-being. Many doctors and healthcare facilities have started incorporating creative therapies into their treatment protocols due to the positive results for both physical and mental illnesses. Additionally, working in a job that requires creativity, defined as using imagination, self-expression, and originality, is associated with having the equivalent health of someone 6.7 years younger.
I’m inspired by my own story to learn more about the connection between healing and creativity. For most of my life, I suffered from painful PMS symptoms and endometriosis. In my thirties, I experienced a blocked Fallopian tube. I knew what to do to get healthy. I ate well, I exercised, I took the right supplements. I also explored other complementary treatments, including abdominal massages and energy healing. However, I could never quite find the right thing to bring about true healing.
Then, one day I picked up my paintbrush again and started to put paint onto canvas. I had no intention of creating anything particular. Instead, I was simply looking for a way to express myself in a place without thought where I was truly free. I connected with my creative spirit and started to paint bright colors on canvases. Over time, my symptoms improved dramatically. Although I cannot prove that my painting was what healed me, I believe it was part of the process and a missing piece I needed to fully regain my health.
Let’s explore the connection between creativity and health a bit more to better understand why it might be worth adding it as an important component to your healthy lifestyle.
Creativity and Human Evolution
Interestingly, creativity might have played an important role in our evolution. One study found that creative intelligence might have been an indicator of good genes by being what is known as a fitness indicator. This is a characteristic like intelligence, strong muscles, facial attractiveness, and jaw size that demonstrate a potential mate is fertile, viable, and has quality genes to pass on.
In this study, the researchers found that women who were in their mid-cycle, so at peak fertility, preferred men who were creative, even if the men did not have any money. However, women in other parts of their cycle preferred wealthy men. This idea goes along with the theory that women at peak fertility are more drawn to good genes or fitness indicators than good dads or resource indicators. The study was performed using vignettes describing the potential male mates either as having lots of creative intelligence but little wealth or the opposite. It had its limitations, but it does point to an interesting connection that we might have with creativity on a genetic level.
There are six recognized creative therapies use in healing: art therapy, dance/movement therapy, psychodrama, drama therapy, poetry therapy, and music therapy. These facilitate healing and well-being through combining psychotherapy with artistic expression.
Even just listening to music or looking at art has healing benefits. A systematic review of the health benefits of music found that it has the power to positively influence inflammatory cytokines and cortisol, as well as reduce stress, and thereby provide health benefits for stress-related illnesses. Another study found that listening to music during childbirth reduced the level of postpartum anxiety and pain, and it also reduced the rate of early postpartum depression.
Creating art also imparts positive effects on mental and physical health. In a study looking at patients with severe and chronic mental illness, music therapy improved the patient’s quality of life based on a scale, despite it not altering their symptoms. The participants engaged in weekly sessions that lasted for an hour over a period of 10 weeks. They sang songs, wrote songs, improvised, and recorded original songs. The participants found joy and pleasure from the music therapy and often were surprised by their own creativity. Their songs gave them pride, and many of the participants benefited from working as a team to create them. The participants also appreciated being able to express their feelings and concerns through the music.
Working with the visual arts has similarly helped patients with their healing. In one study on young adult cancer survivors, patients who engaged in some type of creative experience either alone or in a therapy setting found they had an increased healing experience and self-understanding. It facilitated moments of mindfulness and being present while also providing ways to express the numerous feelings and emotions the cancer patients experienced during their treatment. One participant pointed out that it helped express emotions that words cannot always convey. Art therapy might also help hospitalized children express themselves through acting as an alternative form of communication.
Relaxation and Self-Expression
One hypothesis for why creativity is so beneficial to health is that it facilitates deep relaxation. Many of the studies above included patients who felt more relaxation or had reduced stress after creating or enjoying art. Studies have found that stimulating the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress response, is correlated with improved health. In one study that compared long-term practitioners of activities that stimulated the relaxation response, such as meditation, led to a decrease in ACTH, which stimulates the stress hormones. Short-term practice also led to psychological benefits, but it did not have the same biological effects. Another study found that passive relaxation in the elderly led to enhanced immunity and psychological well-being.
The other factor that might play a significant role is that it allows for self-expression and modulating emotions, which can also help reduce stress and facilitate healing. In one study, finding ways to modify negative emotions can help maintain mental health. In a study that looked into the benefits of creative therapy for those with dementia, the main results were due to the engagement, creative self-expression, and communication.
Stress is connected with a wide range of illnesses including reproductive health, so perhaps my experience of healing my endometriosis was derived from the relaxation that getting back into art gave me. One study on mice found that chronic stress led to an accelerated development of endometriosis. Endometriosis can also lead to psychological and neuroendocrine changes, which could lead to higher levels of perceived stress and contribute to the disease progression as well. There is also a strong connection between painful PMS and chronic stress.
Or perhaps there is a deep connection between the feminine energy, reproduction, and creative expression that science has yet to discover. Regardless, the anecdotal and experimental evidence demonstrate a clear capability of the creative energies to heal a wide range of mental and physical problems.
Finding Your Own Path to Wellness
I do not know what will work for you; I only know my own story of finding the final piece of my health through painting. But to start, think about what creativity means to you. Is it painting, writing, acting, dancing, throwing pottery, blowing glass, making jewelry, singing, playing an instrument?
The visual and performing arts are typically what people think about when talking about creativity, but you do not have to be “artsy” to let your creative energy flow. Although there is a deep connection between the visual and performing arts and creativity, it is not the only part of life in which the creative spirit thrives. True creativity is about self-expression, which can come out in many different ways.
Regardless of your own artistic inclinations, you have many options for tapping into this creative energy. Dance around your house, sing in the shower, have a laugh with friends, paint something, journal, color in a coloring book, appreciate other people’s artwork, bake or cook, decorate a cake or some cookies, write a novel or some fan fiction, try your hand at poetry, play a musical instrument, or simply sit and listen to music.
Most importantly, remember, you do not have to be “good” to benefit from the joys of connecting with the creative spirit and letting it flow out of you. Instead, you just need to find what exercises your own creative intelligence, brings you joy, and provides a medium for your imagination and self-expression. It should also be something you find calming and relaxing. Once you find your outlet, you will have the tools you need to tap into the healing power of creativity.