The power of creativity for recovery
20/20 vision and the reasons why harnassing your creativity can be so useful for your mental health and personal recovery.
Hi and welcome to my CHIME to Thrive blog, as well as to 2020! I can only really take credit for the former but I truly hope that this is a year and a decade in which you thrive in spite of any challenges and that this new chapter is one which is exciting, rewarding and realises your visions and potential.
My vision for the new year is to see CHIME to Thrive expand to help more people with their mental health, it is also to continue to improve and look after my own wellbeing, I am going to try and be open and honest about my own mental health and recovery journey as I go along.
For me, 2020 has long been linked with concepts of ‘vision’ and even of ‘foresight’; until recently* (*read: 10 minutes ago), I had mistakenly thought that 20/20 was the prescription for perfect vision - it turns out, in fact, that it is simply normal vision. This made me wonder how many others hold similar (mis)perceptions of 20/20 being ‘perfect’? My own skewed interpretation reminded me of how, so often, we put others - put normal - on perfect pedestals; seeing them through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s not helped, of course, by the fact that our already coloured glasses are directed towards others’ highly filtered highlights, laid out in perfectly colour-coordinated Instagram feeds, no-less.
Everything we are being fed tells us that we aren't good enough and it really is having an affect. We are even holding ourselves up to filtered versions OF OURSELVES. Seriously, as if airbrushing wasn't enough; how can we be expected to compete with our haloed, smooth-faced, massive-eyes, snapchat-alter ego, when we squint at ourselves in the harsh light of our bathroom mirrors?
I spent half an hour recently alongside a group of year 7 school boys, and their constant selfies terrified me. 'Selfies' here stands for 'self criticisms', which would systematically follow each and every of the hundreds of photos of themselves that they took at different angles, with different filters, at marginally different angles, with minutely different expressions and different caption variations. I think we need to be more aware of what message we are sending when we only accept perfect, I believe we have a responsibility both to ourselves and to others, to give ourselves a break once in a while.
I'd like to propose that moving forward we try to keep in mind that what we see and what we interpret isn't always the full picture and everything we see is almost certainly never perfect and that's ok, because it turns out even 20/20 isn't perfect.
A few years ago, I had an idea of a story set in the year 2020 whereby smart chips were inserted into people’s brains allowing them to see data about the world around them through their eyes alongside what they were actually seeing; a sort of advanced version of Google Glass but with all of the dystopian possibilities of, well, a chip in the brain. Anyway, we have reached 2020 and I never did write that novel, it didn't even become a novella; barely a post-it, if I'm honest. Indeed, I completely forgot about it until somewhere between ‘“five” and “four”, as Jools counted down to midnight; the Dancing Clock guy sweating miserably beneath his happy clock-face, somewhere in the crowd, knowing no-one will ever really know it was him and wondering what the next year will bring.
I apologise if I have mislead you into thinking I have a particularly fast and vivid memory, which allows me to conjour up the entire contents of a should-be-novella-come-post-it in less than a second; in reality, I was awarded some extra time during the countdown by the stuttered interruptions of the buffer stream as my so-called smart phone battled to connect with my just-as-so-called smart TV; we entered 2020 about 10 minutes behind - so much for foresight. I shouted at the fireworks already going off outside to wait for us(!!), while it buffered. This was futile. Still, the unplanned intrusions caused by far from perfect technology, which is still decades away from my 2014 projected brain chip augmented-reality future, allowed me to fondly recall the story which I had once thought up during a depressive episode, long since passed. Basically, imperfections can have happy consequences sometimes. Cheers.
Creative expression, mental health and recovery
One thing which has helped me in my own recovery and which ties in nicely with the theme of vision, is creative expression.
The jury is out on whether there is a link between creativity and mental ill health; we don’t need to look far to find people who have impacted the world with their creativity and who have battled with serious mental illness, however, again we need to be careful not to deduce what is ‘the norm’ and if there is a link to not jump to conclusions around what is cause or effect i.e. what came first - the illness or the creativity.
A recent systematic review and meta-analysis by Taylor (2017) found that creative people are more liable to mood disorders, but overall there was little evidence that a mood disorder makes somebody more creative.
Although I have always enjoyed writing, I had rarely dedicated any amount of time to this or other art forms beyond academia or functional use until I became severely ill with my mental health in 2016. During the course of my recovery, I realised just how useful creative expression can be as a tool for recovery. In fact, the very reason I am writing right now is to unwind.
“I've noticed my own creative abilities can become ‘unlocked’ when my mental health is at a suboptimal level”
Anecdotally, I've noticed my own creative abilities can become ‘unlocked’ and optimised when my mental health is at a suboptimal level (specifically, somewhere between mild to moderate depression or anxiety); having been notoriously terrible at drawing among friends, I realised one day during my recovery that actually, I wasn't as horrific at drawing as I thought. I’d love to know if anyone else has experienced anything similar during shifts in their mental health.
I haven’t drawn anything other than this - before or since - but I was pretty proud of how it compared to a pictionary rabbit I did once whose arms were mistaken as saggy breasts.
Why is creativity such a useful tool for our mental wellbeing?
- It allows us to be in the present moment whilst also being completely absorbed
- It enables us to produce something concrete and allows for a sense of achievement
- It can be fun for fun's sake, something we often neglect as adults
- It allows us to make mistakes which can improve the overall effect of what we are creating
- It can reduce our fear and conceptualisation of failure
- It allows us to use executive function skills like problem solving, attention and planning
- It uses parts of our brain that we aren’t used to using which can trigger its reward pathways
- It can be motivating to learn and improve on a new skill
- It can be cathartic, helping us to release and even better understand our pent up emotions or experiences
- It can connect us with others who enjoy similar things e.g. through face-to-face groups or online
I have found that engaging in creative processes, be it writing, drawing, painting, photography, cooking or upcycling, has benefited my own recovery immensely and this is something that I plan to continue doing to maintain my wellbeing and also something I don't think I would have discovered or at least appreciated had I not become so ill and needed it as much as I did. A silver lining.
If you are interested in using creativity to improve your wellbeing, then I recommend the 64 million artists challenge, which gives different short and fun challenges each day throughout January; you can spend as much or as little time doing as many as you like and it’s amazing to see what other people come up with in response to the challenges and how different minds operate. This is something I did 3 years ago when I could pretty much do nothing else; giving me small goals to work towards that day; a sense of purpose and the feeling of being part of a community.
If you have any comments or questions about this post, particularly about creativity, honesty and social media comparissons, then I would love to hear them. Happy new year, Lauren