This post is all about my belief in the potential benefits of slowing down and engaging in something absorbingly creative. Over the next few paragraphs I’ll be delving into what exactly this means, specifically exploring the symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, and how engaging in creative pursuits has been shown to make a difference.
The Depressed Mind
One of the most important things I gained from depression was enlightenment. To be clear: I did not sit beneath a tree for seven days until nirvana overcame me (see Buddhism). What did happen was that gradually I learned that I was not my thoughts. Which is especially useful if your thoughts have become your worst enemy somewhere along the line: chiming in to cheer on and strengthen the merest whiff of self-defeat, replacing optimistic ambition with resigned lethargy and – at its worst – total numbness. Suffice it to say that simply trying can sometimes be enough to kickstart a small shift in perception. Basically, if you rarely leave the house and remain curled in a ball telling yourself you’re not good enough, you end up believing it and – keen problem-solver that the human brain is – it’ll search through the memory database for evidence of this conclusion, reminding you of each and every other time you’ve felt low, or sad, or stupid. (It’s efficient like that.)
If you’re really unlucky, you might find yourself on a fast-track to catastrophising: predicting the worst outcome of any and every event. Watch out for thoughts such as ‘I’ll never get this done’, ‘That person frowning obviously hates me’, or ‘I always get this wrong’. The negative thoughts can spin out of control, with anticipated future ‘failures’ encouraging a sense of futility and leaving you less able to overcome current obstacles. Once you’re able to recognise these patterns, it becomes easier to avoid the quicksand by choosing to react differently, and taking a different path.
The Anxious Mind
Anxiety can propel you into a prolonged ‘fight or flight’ response state of high alert. This is the standard biological response to a threatening situation, and has ensured the survival of human beings versus lions and other dangerous items since the dawn of man. Less helpful when you’re just trying to buy a loaf of bread and your mind is convinced that the short drive to the corner shop is a minefield of potential hazards. What if something terrible happens on the way? What if they’re run out of all the bread I like? The car might break down. I wouldn’t have any bread and I couldn’t get to work the next day. What if I can’t afford the repairs? How would I make cheese sandwiches? What if I lose my job? etc. You get the idea.
The dictionary definition of the word ‘anxiety’ may also be helpful here: ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’. It’s precisely this uncertainty that the mind in red alert, DEFCON 1 mode hones in on; losing your job following an unsuccessful bread shopping trip would be remarkably unfortunate, but it could happen. Any number of unwanted things may happen. Worrying about all of them in advance isn’t going to help. But don’t take my word for it when there’s a Winnie the Pooh quote that nails it:
‘Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?’
‘Supposing it didn’t,’ said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
Heard of the recent craze for adult colouring-in books? They were everywhere at the end of 2015, widely praised in the media for their ability to help adults ‘de-stress and self-express’. Some of the books even label themselves as ‘art therapy’, making quite the claim on the cover, e.g. ‘Colour Yourself Calm: A Mindfulness Colouring Book‘. Trying not to sound overly ‘new age’ here, but the gateway to a different way of thinking was opened for me through mindfulness, so I can kinda roll with the idea behind these books. (I have one, and it can be a great little distraction of an evening if I need to ‘zone out’.)
Fairly popular now thanks to the Headspace app, yoga and Ruby Wax among others, mindfulness is simply the conscious decision to live mindfully, or indeed, the mindful decision to live consciously. Don’t get me wrong, my own personal initial scepticism was relatively high in relation to sitting still and breathing as a mental health aid. Liiiiike, I’ve been breathing all along guys, come on. I was genuinely surprised when I was first led in a session of mindfulness as part of a course of CBT. Just closing my eyes and breathing for a long enough period can promote genuine stillness. WHO KNEW? I felt surprisingly relaxed when I opened my eyes.
What still astounds me now is this capacity for surprise in terms of the power of the mind. I realise now that it would never have occurred to me to slow down, because I didn’t realise the truly frantic speed at which my mind was racing away with itself.
Choosing to break the cycle
What I found especially helpful as part of the Mindfulness course I then followed was the various suggested ‘habit releasers’. It’s all well and good reading about all the ways to feel better but generally this is no more effective than watching someone else jog in order to get fit. However, if you start making (even tiny) changes, the brain then has some new material to work with, interpret and learn from. Examples of habit releasers include:
- Choosing to walk or drive a different route to work/the shops/anywhere. Especially if you’re walking: look up. Try to pay attention to your new surroundings. How is it different to what you’d normally see and notice?
- Pick a date and time to go to the cinema without looking up what’s on beforehand. Choose a film to watch there and then.
- Always sit in the same seat or area of the room for meetings? Try the other side of the table, or sit next to somebody different.
- Give cheese and mango chutney a whirl in your sarnies. The pickle won’t be offended, I promise.
- Here’s a good one: commit a random act of kindness. Take a homemade cake round to your neighbour’s; send a handwritten letter to an old friend; leave a note inside a book you’ve enjoyed then leave the book somewhere communal at work or on the bus. See how the time-old technique of giving without expecting to receive works out for you!
The idea of the 8-week course is that doing these activities, along with daily meditation practice (i.e. breathing), means that you’ll start to notice a gradual shift in perception. The best bit is realising out of nowhere that your mind has stopped chattering away at you for a few minutes, or even seconds. Personally, I’ve found running particularly helpful. Any activity that you engage in mindfully essentially redirects the chattering mind to gaining, maintaining or improving a skill. Enter baking!
My passion for and dedication to baking has, over time, brought me ridiculous amounts of pleasure and a new set of skills, and with these, increased confidence and a willingness to mix things up a bit, try new recipes and come up with my own. I can get completely lost in a particularly involved recipe, something I consider a bit of a challenge, or absorb myself totally in making sugarpaste flowers look as realistic (and tasty) as I can. It’s not hugely surprising to me now to think of my initially random “sort of smash and grasp urge to regain a sliver of independence, choice, and control” moment that was deciding to make a Christmas cake slap bang in the middle of a post-break-up chasm as an intuitive form of expressive therapy. These are any forms of therapy that emphasise and encourage the creative process rather than the final product.
- Art therapy has been used with patients suffering from schizophrenia in adult in-patient centres in Britain.
- Creative therapies use areas such as art and drama to increase self-awareness, develop social skills, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.
- Being able to express yourself without being judgmental can break through some of the negativity of depression.
- Creating art gives you a product you can see and learn from.
What I’ve learnt
I’ve come a long way since I made my first ever Christmas cake and felt extremely proud of myself. So I thought I’d round off with a quick reminder of the things I’ve learnt in the last few years.
- If you decide to do something, and put in enough time, effort and patience, it’s entirely likely that you’ll achieve it.
- Even if you don’t quite get there, you’ll have struck out on your own path, maybe even dislodged the stones of some other skill or passion you didn’t know you had that starts an avalanche of creativity.
- I went from ‘I couldn’t run for a bus’ to the Royal Parks half marathon (and survived).
- Having my own place totally rocks. I’m basically a fully-functioning adult with my own playground.
- I went from ‘Oh no, everyone else does the kitchen stuff’ to making wedding cakes. (Pretty good ones, too.)
- It’s important to look after your mental self as well as your physical self.
- I believe in myself.
What about you?
I’d recommend writing a similar list to anyone – it’s fun and gave me a wee boost! I’d also love to hear about all your creative pursuits/hopes/dreams – mindful or not 🙂