My school was buzzing with creativity last month.  As a relative newcomer I was impressed by the depth of artistic talent being nurtured amongst the peppermint trees, as showcased in the production, Footloose, and on display throughout our Arts Day. What struck me most about this festival of fun was the level of participation. Everyone was involved. Proof that we don’t need to be the next Liane Moriarty, Jessica Mauboy or Dancing with the Stars winner to express ourselves through the Arts.

We are all creators

When I was at school, I never used to think of myself as a creative person even though I played two instruments, sang in the choir, had roles in various drama productions and enjoyed writing. I believed, incorrectly, that to be creative you had to excel at drawing and painting, and I did not. I used to dread art classes. I loved all the colours, I appreciated shape and texture, but I couldn’t seem to draw anything very well and the lack of teacher encouragement did nothing to improve my confidence.

Years later, tapping into the creativity that I now know lies within us all, and discovering, in particular, the healing power of words, was an absolute revelation. When sadness swamped me, it was writing that provided the outlet I needed, the chance to find meaning and a new sense of purpose. In discovering the healing power of language and self-expression I was transformed.

Create your best self

Unleashing our imagination, expressing ourselves through the arts, is a fundamental human drive. Over thirty thousand years ago our ancestors left their mark on the walls of caves. The need to create is in our DNA. So, it comes as no surprise that there is now increasing evidence of the power of creativity to transform lives, improve mental health and enhance  well-being.

Creativity has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression and stress. Numerous studies have found that writing allows us to manage negative emotions in a productive way. Writing has also been shown to help with chronic pain management and to enhance positive experiences with an increased sense of psychological well-being. Art and music therapy are effective trauma management tools that can give expression to experiences too difficult to put into words.

Creative healing

A 2017 UK report found that prescribing arts activities to some patients could lead to a dramatic fall in hospital admissions. The report contends that the arts can keep people well, aid recovery from illness and prolong life. Published after two years of evidence gathering, it includes hundreds of interviews and dozens of case studies that demonstrate how powerfully the arts can promote health and help people take responsibility for their own well-being.

The case studies included a project called Artlift. Patients with a wide range of conditions, from depression to chronic pain to stroke, were referred to an eight-week course involving poetry, ceramics, drawing, mosaic or painting. Another project, Strokestra, a collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, found that 86% of stroke patients experienced relief from their symptoms, and improved sleep, following music-making sessions.

Further evidence include findings that people with musical training have better connectivity between the two brain hemispheres, and that older people who participate in theatre performances can improve psychological well-being and cognitive functioning, in particular, recall and problem-solving abilities. According to another report, by Stuckey and Nobel, listening to, or playing, music can boost the immune system, regulate mood and moderate response to stressful stimuli.

Dancing back to happiness

Alarmed by the 70% increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in the UK in recent years, former prima ballerina, Darcey Bussell, set out to discover whether moving to music could improve mental health. In the recent BBC documentary, Dancing to Happiness, she tracked the progress of various groups, including troubled adolescents and Alzheimer’s patients, who had embarked on a dance programme. The results were clear. Dance, more than any other exercise, has a positive impact on our minds.

Further studies concur. Apart from the obvious fitness and weight management benefits, Zumba programmes have been shown to improve blood pressure, and a Korean study into hip-hop and aerobic dancing found that participants experienced improved mood, enhanced overall well-being and lower levels of fatigue.

Bake yourself better

The culinary arts can also nourish our minds as well as our bodies.  In her book, Saved by Cake, the author Marian Keyes describes how baking helped her battle with, and recover from, depression.  A complete novice in the kitchen, Marian decided to bake a cake for a friend and that was it. She realised that baking was what she needed to do to get through each day. ‘Whatever was going on with me, I had to wait it out’, she said.  ‘I had to find ways of passing the time until I was restored to myself again. So I baked a cake – a chocolate cheesecake, as it happens. And I enjoyed making it so much that I baked another.’ 

The refuge of art

On her last day as an ABC Breakfast presenter Virginia Trioli spoke of the ‘refuge of art’. Art gives us sanctuary in times of strife. It can lift us up, move us to tears, make us laugh, soothe our souls. It can offer relief and escape. Through art we can express our vision of the world, say what we need to say, give voice to our joy and our pain. In the words of Thomas Merton, ‘Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.’

We undertake creative pursuits simply because we enjoy them. Intuitively, we know that creativity is good for us. Now, the scientific and medical evidence is incontestable. Making and consuming art lifts our spirits, keeps us sane and helps us make meaning from our lives. So, pop on your legwarmers, ‘kick off your Sunday shoes’, pick up a pen, a piece of clay or a paintbrush, hum a melody, strum a guitar and get creative. It’s really good for you.

To read the ‘inspiring and deeply personal account’ of my journey through anxiety and depression order your copy of my memoir Changing Lightbulbs here – the perfect gift to yourself or anyone going through tough times.


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