By Elyse Nissim, LCSW-C
What makes us hum or sing to ourselves when alone, or doodle on paper when distracted or “between” goal directed tasks? The creative impulse is innate in all of us. Children take satisfaction and experience pleasure from making musical sounds and building with blocks long before they have verbal and cognitive skills to analyze or “explain” their creations.
As adults, creative activity permits escape from thoughts and connects us directly with sensory and emotional experiences. Older children and adults spend more time acquiring cognitive, or “left brain” skills, becoming adept at planning, executing and analyzing complex tasks. These skills fill our conscious hours and help us navigate in and make “sense” of the world around us. But often, in this process, we adults lose touch with our creative potential and a more direct, experiential self-awareness.
In fact, new research shows that experiencing art actually enhances mental health. People who actively participate in cultural activities report good health and satisfaction with their lives, and score lower on tests of anxiety and depression, according to one recent study.* This is true both for people who actively engage in artistic experiences — such as playing a musical instrument, singing in a chorus, making mosaics or painting — and for those who experience the arts as spectators by attending concerts, plays, art exhibits, or dance performances. The ability to lose the tension from daily stress, through art, may actually boost the immune system and improve health.
Introducing art into therapy uses creative activity as a non-cognitive tool to bring out and express our life experiences fully, to see our world in new and different ways. As the view expands, choices multiply. Dancing entails more than memorizing all the steps. We must create new “muscle memories,” new sensations and emotions in the act of moving our bodies, changing our visual perceptions. Mind and body relax, and with repetition, as we improve, we experience the satisfaction of growth, positive change, and a different self image emerges. Sometimes a client’s drawing or sculpture, for example, brings fresh perspective to thoughts or experiences where he or she feels “stuck.” Such insights help therapist and client in the difficult work of effecting change. Whether it is used in treating anxiety, depression, or other mental, emotional and medical problems, or enjoyed as part of everyday life, art clearly can benefit our mental health.
Artistic and creative activity can be powerful tools in personal growth, insight and self perception. There are rich possibilities all around us, if we are open to them. Author Denise Fletcher says, “Embrace your inner child by doing any creative activity which brings you joy and which helps you to focus on the present moment.” Her advice is worth taking to heart.
By Elyse Nissim, LCSW-C, Therapy Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
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*”Study of 50,000 men and women, conducted by Koenraad Cuypers of the Department of Public Health at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, described in “For Men, Good Health May Be Found at the Museum,” by Alice Park, healthland.Time.com, May 24, 2011