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mental health mondays :: follow my lead [for once]

there's something deeply gratifying about finding out you've been doing something instinctual only to find out that there's a very good scientific reason for you to be doing so. this week, i unearthed some information on a series of scientific studies that point to the importance of creativity, particularly writing, in the healing process. spoiler alert: it's good news.

before dealing with the results, however, let me explain that the idea of using creative pursuits as a healing and coping method, particularly for mental illness, is not exactly new. well, it is new, compared to a lot of other things, but it's not brand new. the term art therapy was coined in 1942 by a convalescing artist recovering from tuberculosis. he found that focusing mind and body on his painting helped to speed his recovery, because it made him focus less on the effects of his illness. he encouraged other patients to pick up paint brushes and thus was a new form of treatment born.

others were quick to realise that art therapy could be an extremely useful psychoanalytic tool, since it coaxed people to express themselves without the pressure of having to speak out loud about their experiences. therapists generally found that patients who used art as a medium for self-expression were afterwards better able to express themselves verbally when discussing the cause of their problems. and of course, the practice is particularly useful with patients who have limited vocabularies to begin with, such as children or people who may have suffered some form of brain damage.

although the practice of art therapy flourished in the last half of the twentieth century, it understandably took some time for the practice to become standardized, and it was only after that point that it could be studied in any meaningful way. however, in recent years, a significant body of research has emerged that suggests results of art therapy are very positive- more so than its early proponents may have even realised.

as it happens, art therapy is not just about mental disorders. studies show that the original idea behind it- helping patients with a physical illness- is scientifically sound, in that it reduces stress and depression and therefore allows the body to heal faster. [stress has always been an important factor in keeping us alive by urging us to get the hell away from things or situations where our lives were threatened, however in the modern world, stress has generally gone haywire and now does horrible, horrible things to the body. it is absolutely not something that affects only the mind.] so it seems that art therapy is a particularly good choice for patients suffering from any kind of trauma- mental or physical.

what has emerged more recently, however is that patients do better when they are directed to write [the studies i've found specifically reference writing] about traumatic events, rather than just writing in general. a 2013 study in new zealand on elderly patients who underwent biopsies showed a significantly higher rate of improvement among those who wrote about stressful subjects than among those who wrote about mundane ones. doctors suspect that writing down these stressful events helps patients to come to terms with them in a way that having them trapped inside their head cannot. so it is not merely the process of creativity that helps, but achieving a greater level of personal expression.

this may also explain why art therapy has been shown to be useful [less so, but still useful] among prison inmates in helping them deal with issues of control. put in a situation where they are unable to exert control over most areas of their lives can trigger mental/ emotional problems among inmates that follow them after their release. by providing an outlet for expression that they are otherwise lacking, art therapy can help reduce the effects of anxiety and depression associated with loss of control.

these results fall in line with an older [2005] australian analysis that showed how a number of studies pointed to a plethora of benefits gained from art therapy, many of which were objectively verifiable. that analysis is particularly interesting, since it established that it didn't even take a particularly long time to gain benefits from expressive writing: 15-20 minute sessions over a period of 3-5 days was sufficient. [the authors of the new zealand study used 20 minute sessions over a 3-day period.] by way of explanation, the authors referenced a theory advanced in the eighties that suppressing/ repressing traumatic events in the mind takes a considerable amount of effort, so that simply having the memory of them, but not thinking about them, puts tremendous stress on the mind and body, turning one's head into a very complex pressure cooker in the hands of an inept cook. by coaxing those memories and feelings out, the pressure is relieved and the brain becomes free to do all the pleasurable and practical things it's been neglecting as it tried to keep from blowing its lid.

the difficulty with this type of therapy is, predictably, that writing about severely traumatic events causes a short term increase in stress levels, always a danger for patients in a fragile state. the benefits, while they aren't especially long in coming, do take a couple of weeks to manifest, whereas the first few days after engaging in expressive writing therapy can leave a patient in a bad state. for that reason, the greater the trauma being recalled, the more important it is to use the services of a therapist.

much better
however, the benefits of expressive writing therapy are such that it seems a valuable way of dealing with even everyday sources of pain or anxiety. after all, you clearly don't need to be writing a novel. short bursts for a few days will help. the important thing is to make it honest, make it personal. write a letter to someone who's caused you pain. [but don't send it!] write down your memory of a stressful event. write about nightmares you've had, particularly recurring ones [after all, that's your brain trying to find ways to deal with stress anyway]. if you don't feel like writing, you can always try another method of communicating through your creative faculties. [i think the preference for writing in these studies stems from the fact that most people can do it easily and because it takes less time. doesn't that make all you writers feel special? yeah, you can write about that depression too.]


so pick up your pens... er... your keyboards... no, wait, don't pick them up, put them down and press on their keys... your brain is a powerful, mystical thing with the power to hurt you, but also the power to heal you. it's free, it requires no particular skill set and it's backed by science.

p.s. :: because i can't resist making light of things that i really shouldn't, the pictures i've used are taken from this page of charming illustrations by children who are clearly comfortable with expressing their inner demons.

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