As I sit painting a 3D cardboard K with swifts and flowers for my friend Kate, I feel so calm, as though the concept of time changes and nothing but that moment exists. Most people have experienced that feeling before, of being so engaged in creating or crafting that your thoughts are quietened and time slips away. This phenomenon has been studied by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihelyi who has termed it the state of “flow” and believes it is the key to achieving true happiness. Being in a state of flow has been equated to meditating, and may have some of the same mental and physical health benefits, such as reducing stress and helping to fight inflammation (2). Focusing on something other than the thoughts and worries in our head helps us to get out of the “fight or flight” mode, which daily life regularly triggers.
Creative activities don’t just calm us down however, they can also be rewarding experiences. Crafting has been connected to releases of dopamine in the reward centres of the brain, which is described as a natural antidepressant. This dopamine hit gives us a sense of contentment as we create something meaningful, making us feel rewarded and happy.
Creativity and crafting are clearly hugely beneficial activities for anyone, but especially those experiencing mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. This is something my mother, an art therapist, uses when helping her clients. She has told me how art therapy involves connecting to your own needs, ones you may not have otherwise been aware of. She believes the unconscious mind knows what it needs to heal. If a person is given time and a safe space to explore the images which arise through creative acts, they can process difficult experiences, possibly without the need for words at all.
I have found art and writing incredibly helpful ways to feel more in tune with the present moment and less overwhelmed. When I was in my final year at university, I united these different aspects through creative journaling where I used sketching, poetry and diary entries to help understand and defuse negative emotions. Scientists have found that journaling is linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is part of the body’s natural response to threat, but suppresses our immune system and so high levels are bad for our overall wellbeing.
It is incredible how simple but powerful activities can have such a huge impact on the chemistry within our brain, from cortisol to dopamine. Harnessing these natural brain mechanisms through giving yourself time to be creative is clearly a great way to help yourself feel calm, happy and accomplished. This is something which I feel everyone, whether or not they are experiencing mental health difficulties, could benefit from. So often time to be creative is not valued in our society, and I think that needs to change. Creativity is not a luxury, but is vital for our wellbeing.