Can Creative Techniques Improve Your Mental Health?

 

Seventy-five percent of mental health problems emerge during the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, according to long-established research. What happens when you add a worldwide pandemic and extended isolation from lockdowns? The needs of this most vulnerable population surpass the supply of mental health practitioners. 

 

Can those struggling with mental health challenges develop coping strategies to process their own emotions and foster mental well-being, even when mental health resources are not readily available? 

 

Absolutely. According to my research on the topic, creative techniques—such as the use of metaphor, symbols, images, art and crafts, role-playing, and story—can promote emotional healing and provide meaning. Techniques such as these can be used while waiting to work with a professional therapist as additional support.  

Traditional “Talk Therapy” Has Its Limits

I once struggled to find the right words to describe my feelings with my own therapist. She suggested I draw a picture of myself in relation to my current situation and other people.  

“I haven’t drawn since school,” I argued. 

“I won’t assign you a grade; I promise,” she smiled. 

I gave it a go. To my surprise, seeing myself—in relation to another person and my own situation—helped to unlock my thinking, offering me a different view of my situation. I was able to gain a new perspective and rearrange how I saw and reacted to the situation, choosing another relationship to it that served me better.

Creativity and Play

That fuelled me to study even broader creative techniques for use in client work, allowing me to tap into a client's creativity without risking them feeling unsafe or incompetent at whatever art form would be used.

Gameplay is a prime vehicle for initiating the creative process in a non-threatening, multi-dimensional format. A humans’ desire to play is hardwired, as it is for most mammals. Through play, juvenile monkeys learn to “get along,” regulate their emotions, and deal with uncomfortable, unforeseen events. Who couldn’t benefit from those same lessons? A side effect of the process is that a person’s creativity is tapped into when they solve problems, imagine new perspectives, and interact with others.

Three Creative Coping Strategies

For clients that struggle with finding words, I teach them the act of playing—to unlock insights and unleash healing. Research on the topic has reinforced this therapy’s viability, and the client outcomes I have seen suggest it is something safe and accessible to all. 

Here are some guided, creative play practices you can engage in immediately to improve your mental health, with or without a therapist guiding you. 

1. Writing a Story 

Writing a story has similarities to the practice of journaling, offering mental health benefits like managing anxiety, reducing stress, and fostering coping. The story is journaling—but with a twist.  

Spend ten minutes writing about any concerns, issues, or negative feelings that come to you throughout the day. Now, here is the nuance. Instead of writing in a “Dear Diary” format, write a story that is not directly related to the topic of your problem. For example, say you had a stressful argument with your mother. Instead of retelling the event, write a story that brings to the surface your feelings. You can choose an animal to represent yourself and your mother. Without writing about your mom who made you feel intensely at home, you might picture your animals in the blazing sun or the forest shade. Be as creative and free in this process as you feel led.

Stories provide a safe place to explore emotions, without those emotions becoming personally intense and overwhelming.  

2. Drawing the Symbol

Drawing the symbol uses a visual representation of a situation or feeling that creates negative emotions. It replaces a story with a simple symbol. Think of your current feelings or situation. Pick a symbol that best represents your life state. Then, describe that symbol in writing. What does it look like? How does it function? Does it help anyone else? Next, consider ways that your symbol can get its needs met. Finally, reflect on how this might help resolve your own issue.

3. Symbolic Revisioning

The most comprehensive of the three coping strategies is symbolic revisioning, which involves writing a story with symbols and then reflecting on the process. 

Choose a symbol from nature or your environment to represent yourself or a specific issue. Then, write three descriptions of the symbol. Next, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • “What problem does the symbol need to overcome?” 

  • “What stands in its way?”

  • “Who or what can help?”

  • “How can it overcome its challenge?” 

 

Spend a few moments reflecting on possible hidden truths:

  • “How is this symbol relevant to me at this time?”

  • “What is the deeper meaning of this symbol to me?” 

  • “How are my needs similar to the symbol I chose?” 

 

Finally, draw a picture of what would allow the symbol to move forward. Write out the steps it takes to make progress or become unstuck. Sit with your feelings, reflecting on how you might do the same. 

Summary

 

Creativity helps us unravel our own mysteries, because it offers a safe outlet—like the act of play or storytelling with symbols—to displace any potentially upsetting emotions. We “play” as infants, before we use words when using externalised objects, which can compensate for our lack of verbal and cognitive abilities. 

 

Play therapy, even the type we do by ourselves, can provide us with powerful insight and the necessary coping strategies we need while facing unprecedented stressors. 

 

Explore which techniques works best for you. Even if you cannot talk with a mental health therapist today, you can experience what pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers said, “…[I]ndividuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and…self-directed behaviour.”

 

You might discover that you have a great capability to guide yourself. 

 

Victoria Harris, DPsych, is a psychotherapist specialising in creative strategies for emotional healing. Dr. Harris works creatively with children, adolescents, and adults to help individuals move forward with greater clarity and meaning in their lives.

 

References

Harris, V. (2019). Revealing the Unknown in Creative Supervision: A Grounded Theory. (Doctoral Disseration). DCU Online Research Access Services (www.doras.dcu.ie)

Kendall, P.C. and Kessler, R.C. (2002). ‘The impact of childhood psychopathology interventions on subsequent substance abuse: Policy implications, comments, and recommendations’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 70, No. 6, pp. 1303–1306

Rogers, C. (1980). Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p.115-117