How To Use Creativity To Combat Stress, Anxiety & Depression
The older we get the less time we spend playing, being creative, or just doing things for the heck of it because we’re just trying to survive or get ahead. We give up the hobbies we had as kids (even ones we really loved) and put our time into other things, things we think have a purpose. Our creative inner kid is steamrollered into a world of activities that are all about the end and nothing about the journey.
As we “mature” we give up the hobbies we had as kids (even ones we really loved) and put our time into other things, things we think have a purpose. Our creative inner kid is steamrollered into a world of activities that are all about the end and nothing about the journey.
In this post I want to explain what losing this creativity can mean, what it did to me and why it’s essential to do things “just for fun” if you want to make the most out of every aspect of your life. This is how you can use creativity to combat stress, anxiety, depression and even improve your intelligence!
First noticing stress as a problem
Almost every creative pursuit I’d once done was slowly given up as I grew up. Dancing, drama, drawing, music… things I’d done for years and almost once chosen as a career, I now never did at all. I either felt like I couldn’t afford it, I didn’t have time for it or that it was pointless. Living a stressful life where I had plenty of things to worry about ensured that being creative was pushed to the back of my mind.
The more stressed I got, the less likely I was to do anything creative. At one point when I was living in London, I felt like I was going at a million miles per hour with no time even to think properly. There were so many thoughts running through my head all the time, ranging from “to do” lists to worrying about money, family and work. I was switched on and bombarded from the time I stepped on the tube at 8am to when I got through my front door at 7.30 or 8pm.
When I came in from work, needed 20 minutes to just sit quietly on my bed and process my day. I’m an extrovert so I usually get a lot of energy from spending time with others. Feeling desperate to have alone time every day made me realise how strange things were getting and how different I felt.
I stopped cooking for myself because I didn’t have the energy to go to the supermarket. Instead, I ate lentils and tomatoes in the evenings for days on end. Normally, I love experimenting with food and cooking (another way to be creative) but I just felt like the last thing I wanted to do was run around with a trolley in the supermarket after work. Having used up all my positive energy at work I found it almost impossible to make quick decisions about what to buy, spending ten minutes debating if I should buy those leeks or not… should I get red onions or white – which are cheaper – buy two, get one for free – do I even need three? Small decisions seemed extremely hard.
I think it was my brain slowly stopping to function normally as a response to stress. It was the prolonged effect of a series of unexpected and traumatic events mixed with the pressure of trying to function normally and live in a massive, busy and expensive city. I was fighting in my own way, to stay sane. The problem was the huge effort of keeping all of those feelings under the surface whilst trying to go about my life as normal. Every now and again I’d feel furious or experience nauseous panic. Sometimes I’d even cry for a few seconds. But it was only ever a few seconds.
I didn’t correlate this at the time but having no time to relax, indulge in activities or experiment with anything that wasn’t an essential part of my day was making me even more stressed. The things that would have made me feel calmer and more able to deal with the situation I had all but given up. Being stressed in turn just made me feel like I had even less time. It was a vicious circle.
Neurology & The Psychology of Creativity
The effect that taking part in creative activities can have on the brain has been a subject of various studies. It’s not much of a surprise to find out that these kinds of activities, from writing to drawing and even just listening to music can help us.
The American Journal of Public Health reported that numerous chronic diseases, including heart disease, depression and Alzheimer’s, are associated with high-stress levels. Knowing that your heart and your mental health can be detrimentally affected by stress isn’t really a shocking discovery, but linking stress to Alzheimer’s is an indication of just how thoroughly permeating the result of chronic stress could be and how much more seriously it’s being taken.
When you’re at work you’re exercising your critical thinking skills which of course is really valuable. The thing is, you need to exercise your whole brain when thinking critically or creatively. You need to exercise and stimulate the parts of your brain that react to creativity in order to function optimally. Creativity isn’t just a “right brain” thing. We use a widespread neural network involving all four areas of the cerebellum and cerebrum to draw on our creativity. This means our brains have to be good at communicating. If we’re using parts of our brain located on the left and right, for example, those parts need to be able to “speak” to each other.
This is where a healthy nervous system comes in; neurones, electrical impulses and synapses. The neurones in our brain need to be able to function by communicating successfully, a process called neurotransmission. This is a process is accomplished by the movement of chemicals or electrical signals across a synapse. When things get in the way of this process, our brains can be seriously affected. Healthy synapses are really important as that’s what all the information flows through. That’s how your brain “talks” to itself and connects its parts.
Excess stress is widely believed to be extremely detrimental and can damage or prevent the formation of synapses in the areas of the brain that promote optimal function and health. This is why many drugs prescribed for depression are designed to chemically enhance the production, reorganisation & robustness of synapses in the brain.
Neurodegenerative disorders, cognitive impairment and reduced intelligence is mainly seen in people with less synaptic densities. The higher your synaptic density the more likely you are to be able to adapt to your environment (and therefore, handle stress). This means the more synapses your brain can create and keep healthy, the better you should feel.
It’s thought that healthy synapses can be encouraged in several different ways including motor learning (anything involving the learning of complex movements such as juggling, acrobatics or ping pong) and an enriched environment (breaking of routine, varied social and external interactions). These things can also all help to combat stress which in turn promotes healthy synapses.
Indulging in creative activities as a way of reducing stress and treating brain conditions is widely used and studied across the globe. It’s also producing some amazing results on the positive effect it has on the brain. Not only does it encourage the creation of new synapses and thus promote better brain function, it alleviates the stress that can destroy those synapses.
Creative therapy can be anything from colouring in books to alleviate anxiety to music therapy that alleviates symptoms of Alzheimers. The beauty is, when you’re doing something that you enjoy (and being creative could mean designing a scientific invention, as long as you’re stimulating the right parts of your brain) and relax into, you allow a self-expression and calmness of mind not achievable in other activities. You focus on the moment, you process emotions and you feed the “rewards” region of your brain.
Finding A Creative Outlet
Just after I met Jackson I started helping him with a surfboard design he’d asked me to get involved with (not because I’m great at art, just because he could see I’d enjoy it). I loved the creativity behind his work and rediscovered my love of getting messy with any kind of paints or pens.
I dug out my old art set from under my bed and took it back with me to London. Getting out the art set on the kitchen table of my shared London house turned into an evening ritual. I’d paint anything from surfboards to bears and even though they looked pretty ridiculous, I felt like I was setting something free inside me.
I stopped thinking for a short while and just concentrated on what I was doing. It was so relaxing… It’s so easy to fill up any second of free time scrolling through social media, but it’s nowhere as fulfilling as doing something that lets you express something else. Something that isn’t going to be seen, judged or scrutinised by anyone but you. I even started taking a notepad to work which I’d draw in, instead of checking my Facebook at lunch.
I’ve gradually started to put that creativity I have lost back into my life as I try to help my brain recover and unlearn some of the stress responses it’s spent years cultivating. I go to a dance class on Wednesdays where I throw some crazy and unselfconscious shapes to hip hop. I’m sewing and experimenting with making things out of concrete and I’m giving myself Ukelele lessons when Jackson isn’t in (to save his ears). I’ve even bought some paper to make my own Christmas cards (if you get a questionable depiction of a Christmas tree in the post, that thing took me hours!).
The good news is, you don’t even have to actually take part in creating something yourself to reap its stress-reducing benefits. Simply watching other people do something creative is enough to help you de-stress. Watching a concert or a play, reading a book or a blog or just checking out a new museum counts as a creative activity.
If you hate anything arty and you get your enjoyment from maths problems, crosswords, sudoku or writing and learning code, this will have the same effect on your brain. As long as you’re focused, enjoying yourself and relaxed then you can be creative in thousands of different ways.
It doesn’t really matter what you do. It’s just about finding a bit of time to do something you love that’s JUST for fun. It probably won’t directly get you anywhere in life, but we do enough of those things every day. Finding a small amount of time to start a project or just to play or watch a film. The best thing is, you don’t have to give a single shit if anyone likes what you do. You can make a sculpture of a giant pile of crap and it doesn’t matter – as long as you enjoy the process, there’s no one you have to please at the other end.