Aside from therapy and medication (when appropriate), one of the absolute best things you can do for your mental health is to engage in some sort of creative activity regularly in your life. It doesn’t even have to involve setting up a canvas or opening up a journal with a fresh pen. A 2000 study in The Arts in Psychotherapy by Frances Reynolds, PhD (Managing Depression Through Needlecraft Creative Activities: A Qualitative Study, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 107–114, 2000) concluded that there was therapeutic value in both the process and product of any creative activity after studying a group of needle-crafters focused on managing their depression.
Whether you use creative activity as a form of expression, as an exploration of deeper mental health themes, or to provide stimulation (through joy, flow or as an antidote to boredom), there really is a multi-layered benefit to this practice. And as if you need more evidence for art-making, painter Georgia O’Keefe jokingly wrote in a letter to her friend, “I believe some wise old fool says it’s good for the soul so maybe it will help.” I myself would be remiss to avoid mentioning all the times playing piano and expressing the darkness in my household through minor tarantellas saved my spirit while growing up.
If you’re reading this and on board but don’t know where to start, take stock of your supplies. At the minimum, a pen and paper will do for visual art, a voice to hum with will do for music, a phone playing music and an empty room will serve for dance and so on. You don’t need much to get started, and if you feel like exploring further you can do research on what supplies you need as you go.
If you’re feeling stuck or disconnected from creativity, try to think about what you might have liked in the past. Do you remember enjoying doodling in notebooks, ice-skating or engaging with creative writing? You might also think about what you haven't gotten a chance to explore. Perhaps it’s worth exploring something that you don’t have a “natural inclination” for. Our society puts undue pressure on labeling some select folks as artists early on, which isn’t really fair to the creative spirit that is present in ALL human beings. This leads many of us to struggle with internal critics that judge anything we’re making. Try asking your internal judge to take a break for a while to explore the joy and wonder that can come from making things and sifting through the deeper aspects of our soul.
I encourage you to find a time (30 minutes to 1 hour) for creative exploration once a week. Perhaps it might even be during or after your therapy sessions. Exploring deeper themes in the work you’re doing with your therapist can unlock hidden doors and creative avenues in your life. Be sure to get adequate support from your therapist too if you’re choosing to explore bigger fish lurking in the deepest pools of your mind as well — it can be useful to have a guide for safety purposes.
Melissa Lee Nilles, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor and expressive arts therapist with a Master's degree from Lesley University’s Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy program. She is deeply passionate about self-exploration through the arts, mindfulness practices and therapy. She seeks to collaborate with her clients using the tools of person-centered therapy, mindfulness, meditation, trauma-informed body-oriented psychotherapy and expressive arts therapy (through music therapy, art therapy, and poetry/writing therapy). Melissa also employs CBT and motivational interviewing to help you transform your life. She prefers a holistic, eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to addressing client concerns.