How creativity can improve your mental health

From painting to baking, knitting to doodling, creativity is an inherent part of being human. But amidst the demands of modern life and the dominance of technology, many of us are underutilising our creative potential. And evidence suggests that this could be having a negative impact on our mental health.

What the science says

Flexing our creative muscles has been proven to help people manage their mental wellbeing. Why is this? When we are being creative, our minds typically enter a state of flow; essentially, we become absorbed by what we are doing, and the creative act takes over our mind. Being in flow boosts our mental state and even slows the heart rate down, making it particularly significant for people who suffer from depression or anxiety.

The immersive nature of being creative can help you to focus your mind and control your thoughts – much like the practice of meditation. But with repetitive creative motions, such as knitting, or craft-based tasks including DIY, the reward centres in our brain release dopamine; it’s this chemical surge that boosts your mood.

Dopamine, sometimes referred to as the feel-good chemical, is a neurotransmitter which acts as a natural antidepressant. When we engage in creative pursuits and the neurons in our brain start firing, we receive positive re-enforcement. So not only does being creative feel good at the time, our brains are essentially telling us to keep going.

Creativity as a therapeutic practice

Creative pursuits have been shown to help people process trauma and work through difficulties they are facing in life. The act of writing, or journaling, for example, can help people to navigate their negative thoughts in a productive way. The British Journal of Health Psychology published a study which highlighted the benefits of journaling as a way of improving mental health. The study showed that writing about an emotional topic lowered people’s cortisol levels.

Similarly, painting or drawing about the struggles a person is going through is a good way of expressing emotions or experiences that they are not able to verbalise or write down. The process is much the same as journaling; it’s an act that can feel painful in the short term but is highly cathartic and remedial in the long term.

Carving out time for creativity

Much like physical exercise benefits your body, being creative is a way of stimulating and training your mind. Unlike physical exercise, however, it can be extremely quick to notice the effects of creativity on your mental health.

But feeling creative isn’t something you can force. It’s important to recognise that it’s the creative act itself that helps, not what you actually create. This means that you don’t need to craft a masterpiece in order to reap the benefits.

We recommend starting small and gradually increasing your capacity. Try and carve out some time each week for creative pursuits – whether that’s on your daily commute, during a lunch break or when you’re relaxing at the end of the day. If you are really short on time, opt for an activity that you know you can pick up as and when; colouring in, for example, is a great option as you can dedicate as much or as little time as you have. It’s also not an expensive pursuit and, if you’re equipped with a couple of pencils, it’s something you can do just about anywhere. Find and embrace what works for you.

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