Healthy Minds for All

How Creative Expression Boosts Mental Health


Although there is a lot of talk about mental health, an unusual insight is that a growing body of research shows the link between creativity and strong mental health. The key is to implement a daily routine of creativity, a habit that sticks with you for the long term. When we express ourselves through art and imagination, our mental health is more likely to remain steady and calm. For LGBTQ+ folks, a creative life interwoven with our jobs, partners and responsibilities is especially important - encouraging us to show up as members of our community, strengthening bonds with friends and allies, and being an active participant in life.

Research shows that a practice of creativity and expressing it through various mediums (painting, drawing, dancing, singing, etc.) relieves pressure weighing on our minds. "Turning to creativity has been proven in extensive research to relieve both stress and anxiety," writes Barbara Field for Verywell Mind, a publication dedicated to helping readers with mental health and balance. "Creativity also helps lessen the shame, anger, and depression felt by those who have experienced trauma."

In fact, a creative pursuit not only lessens stress and anxiety, it strengthens connections in the brain and builds emotional resilience. "When we focus on something that is challenging and/or fun, we make new neural pathways, increasing connectivity in the brain," writes Field. "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."

So, if creativity is "a prescription for your mental health," how do we begin? Well, the simple answer is to start. You may hold yourself back because creativity and self expression seems reserved only for professional artists, but the benefits of creativity are in the process of creating, not the end results. Elizabeth Gilbert, famed author of "Eat, Pray, Love," explains in her book on creativity, "Big Magic," how to get past the fear that holds so many of us back. "Let me list for you some of the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life," writes Gilbert. "You're afraid you have no talent. You're afraid you'll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or - worst of all - ignored. You're afraid you're too old to start." How do you grapple with your fear? "It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too."

Try different forms of creativity to maintain a daily practice:

Draw, paint, write. The act of moving your hand as it is focused on a task links the brain to the hand movement. This simple connection keeps our minds on a task, frees us from stress and depression, and keeps us in the present moment. If thinking about the past exposes us to depression and dwelling on the future is a recipe for anxiety, being in the present - and staying there with a hand-moving task - is the relaxed state we want to stay in.

Sing, play music, dance. "Music bonds us," writes Field. "According to researchers, when we harmonize or synchronize with others, we have more positive feelings towards them."

Spend time in nature. Field looked at a study titled "Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning Through Immersion in Natural Settings" to understand how nature affects creativity. The study centered on a group of hikers who spent four days in a natural setting. "Nature in this study provided emotionally positive stimuli," according to the results, leading to "increased performance on a creativity/problem solving task by 50%." The study also looked at how the hikers performed on creativity and problem solving when disconnected from technological devices. "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."

Everyone is creative. We simply need to tap into it and practice every day for inspiration, joy, and strong mental health. "A creative life is an amplified life," writes Gilbert, encouraging us to always follow the creative spark. "It's a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life." For LGBTQ+ folks, the benefits of a creative life will pay off in strengthened mental health, which in turn helps us to show up for our community, reminding us that we are stronger together.

Sponsored by McDonald's

by Roger Porter

This story is part of our special report: "McDonald's Unity in Diversity and Mentally Strong Editorial Series". Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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