When the first lockdown began in March, my son developed a persistent cough. I was anxious and when I couldn’t sleep I would write. Inspired by the author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose soothing Instagram I would turn to in the ungodly hours, and reassured by her pragmatic take on creative endeavours, I poured my anxiety on to the page and lost myself in my story.
My son’s cough wasn’t Covid-19 as it turned out, but writing about it had helped me manage my fears around the pandemic and given me direction. Now it’s New Year, and lockdown, in some shape or another, is still a reality while most of us wait for the vaccine. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but until we get there, I have a strong feeling that making something might just help.
At the beginning of the pandemic we were hyped up; it was scary, but it was novel and many of us even enjoyed the slower pace of lockdown life – wider traumas not withstanding – and the chance to work from home. Now that it’s almost a year ago, we’re more likely to be fatigued and listless, wrestling with financial worries and whatever else may come our way.
In these circumstances, taking up a new creative pastime could bring the tangible sense of achievement we seek, injecting some much-needed novelty into what could otherwise be a bleak January.
Psychotherapist Josh Hogan began drawing landscapes in the first lockdown. “It gives me a sense of peace and calm,” he says. “When I’m focused on that one activity I’m not worrying about things that might happen in the future; it brings me back into the present moment because I have to pay attention to what I’m doing.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment and I may feel like I’ve really said something,” he says. “I’ve used art and creativity all my life to express myself and make sense of the confusing vagaries of life. But it wasn’t until I began my counselling training I realised that art could be used as a powerful therapeutic, tool. Expressing oneself and making sense of life are two important processes in therapy. When I began training I realised I had been doing a lot of therapeutic things without knowing it.”
Hogan also recommends creative pursuits to clients who are overwhelmed with anxiety. Art is widely recognised as a helpful way to boost wellbeing in so many different was: to aid communication, to alleviate depression, to uncover hidden meanings and conflicts, but it doesn’t have to be a big cathartic expression of inner turmoil to have healing benefits. Even a small amount of creativity is good for us.
As a study led by Dr Daisy Fancourt, UCL senior research fellow for BBC Arts found, getting to grips with something new and creative is good for our mental health regardless of skill level. The research, conducted between March and May 2018 among a sample of 47,924 respondents across the UK, found that doing something creative can help people see problems in a new light.
“While activities such as creative writing can help you vent your emotions, other things like knitting or crafting can give us some space and a safe haven away from our stresses, which might provide a chance to think things through and find solutions,” says Fancourt.
Making something new is also great for our confidence. “People can be surprised by what they achieve and this can spill over into other aspects of their lives,” says Fancourt. “A great example is the Choir with No Name, which is a choir for people affected by homelessness: 70-80% of people who take part go on to volunteer or find housing and leave the streets.” While real-life choirs might be out of bounds for the moment, that shouldn’t stop us from flexing our vocal cords in one of the many online groups that have sprung in the pandemic.
Getting busy with your sketchpad or journal can protect us in all sorts of ways. According to one study examining the links between art and health, a cost-benefit analysis showed a 37% drop in GP consultation rates and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions when patients were involved in creative pursuits. Other studies have found similar results. For example, when people were asked to write about a trauma for 15 minutes a day, it resulted in fewer subsequent visits to the doctor, compared to a control group.
Why we see these responses isn’t clear, though when we’re really into our creative “flow” many of us fall into a state similar to deep meditation. Hours flash by in minutes and for once we’re free of that nagging, critical inner voice. This flow state can even bring about changes in our body, as shown by a 2010 Swedish study on classical pianists, which found that heart rate slowed, breath deepened and, rather wonderfully, the smile muscles were activated when the musicians really got into their groove.
But what about sharing our creation with others? Can this make our creative endeavour more powerful?
“When it’s shared, parts of us that were once invisible, hidden, obscured, become known,” is how musician and writer Jeff Leisawitz, explains it, writing on his Tiny Buddha blog. “There are seven billion people running around on this planet. It’s easy to feel lost, invisible and inconsequential. It’s a big world. So creativity helps us be seen. Perhaps you’ll get your 15 minutes and become popular with the masses. More likely, it’ll be with your extended gang or just a few close people. And sometimes your creation will only be for yourself. Even if no one else checks out your work, it’ll still help you see yourself. Become better known to yourself.”
In lockdown, many of us wrote more than ever before, colouring-book sales skyrocketed and we saw a spate of online creative courses spring up as artists and other makers shared their skill-sets to help us stay sane. Isolation Art School, set up by Keith Tyson, who won the Turner Prize in 2002, offered free video tutorials, which you can still find on its Instagram page, with portrait painting demos from Jonathan Yeo, and Tim Noble showing you how to build your own shadow portrait out of rubbish and household items – and much more.
But what if your rubbish shadow portrait is, well, rubbish? If we don’t have an artistic bone in our body, can creativity still help our mental health?
Tyson’s own series of lessons, Painting for Absolute Beginners, challenges the idea that there are artistic people and non-artistic people. “I think the most important things you can learn from this is that there are no wrong answers. There’s no way you can make a mistake,” he says reassuringly.
Gilbert is similarly inclusive. “Creative living doesn’t mean you need to become a poet who lives on a mountain top in Greece, or that you must perform at Carnegie Hall or win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival,” she says in Big Magic, her self-help book for creatives (although if that’s your dream by all means go for it). “Creativity is simply a way to live a bigger more fulfilled life.”
It’s akin to unearthing buried treasure, which each of us has deep within us; we just need the courage to look for it. And what better time than now?
Artistic expression: how to bring creativity into your life
1. You can’t experience “flow” if you’re constantly being interrupted, so switch off your phone and laptop.
2. Do something you enjoy. Whether you’re drawing, writing or designing, you’re likely to achieve higher “flow” if you’re doing it for its own sake rather than for an extrinsic reward, like money or applause.
3. Don’t wait for inspiration or a big epiphany. Set aside an hour a day for creativity and just show up for it.
4. Try following an online course, like the free classes on Isolation Art School or one of the online courses from Writers HQ, which promises to help you “Stop f***ing about and start writing.”
5. Suspend judgment. If you don’t think your creation is good enough, give yourself a break and keep going. As Gilbert says, in her podcast for Big Magic: “The only thing that’s going to get you back to work on day two is if you forgive yourself for how bad your work was on day one.”