Both science and history attest that creativity is a great ally in battling the darkness.
“Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.” — Madeleine L’Engle
Like the tails of a thousand tangled snakes, chasing our thoughts can be slippery business. Sometimes emotions slither in every direction at once, darkly knotted together in a swirling morass of things better left unsaid. Especially under the influence of depression. But it is especially those occasions when we are slogging through the gloomy valleys of our emotions, that creative expression reaches peak therapeutic value.
The Research On Creative Expression For Depression Is In
Recorded history presents significant testimony to the power of creative expression. Spanning cultures, geography, and history, healing rituals are treasured components of our shared existence as a human race. The healing value of creative expression has been appreciated and examined closely by everyone from ancient philosophers to modern holistic health practitioners. It is only recently, however, that empirical clinical research has been conducted to scientifically examine alternative complementary therapies for definitive health benefits.
Published in the Journal of Public Health, Heather Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel present the conclusion that medical studies confirm the value of creative activities for reducing depression, stress, and pain.
The authors especially emphasize the health benefits of expressive writing, movement-based expression, music engagement, and visual arts therapy. Confirming proven therapeutic effects, Stuckey and Nobel state that arts “heal emotional injuries, increase understanding of oneself and others, develop a capacity for self-reflection, reduce symptoms, and alter behaviors and thinking patterns.”
Understanding the Healing Power of Expressive Writing
Comprehensively outlined in tables of results, Stuckey and Nobel report that “relative to control group participants, individuals who have written about their own traumatic experiences exhibit statistically significant improvements in various measures of physical health, reductions in visits to physicians, and better immune system functioning.” Significant improvements included relief from pain and depression, as well as decreased perception of pain severity.
Referencing studies conducted by Pennebaker, “the leading researcher on the power of writing and journaling for healing purposes,” Stuckey and Nobel confirm that “writing about upsetting experiences produces long-term improvements in mood and health.”
In one study, Pennebaker’s students were asked to write about an important emotional issue, expressing their deepest thoughts and feeling. Students were confined by one rule only, requiring that writing must continue until a defined number of minutes (15 to 30) had passed.
Stuckey and Nobel confirm that “Dozens of replications of these types of studies have demonstrated that emotional writing can influence frequency of physician visits, immune function, stress hormones, blood pressure, and a number of social, academic, and cognitive variables. These effects have been shown to hold across cultures, age groups, and diverse samples.”
Further concentrating on expressive writing, Stuckey and Nobel confirm “journaling is another way to access the unconscious self.” Citing two qualitative studies, “journal writing helped participants identify and work though feelings, improve relationships, and learn new things about themselves.”
Exploring Emotional Journaling to Help Depression
Emotional journaling, as opposed to dry diary keeping, is particularly successful at beating depression. Dr. Michael Rank, co-director of the International Traumatology Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa, recommends emotional journaling as a way of “turning subjective thoughts to objective words on paper that can be analyzed, changed, even destroyed.” Dr. Rank, who is also an associate professor at South Florida, explains, “Once your thoughts are externalized … once they’re out of your head and onto paper, there’s no longer a mystique attached to them.”
Center for the Advancement of Health Executive Director Jessie Gruman also confirms, “Keeping a journal is a good way to start coping with depression.” He adds, “If you are having trouble putting your finger on what’s bothering you, this may help you narrow the field.”
Dr. Gruman recommends finding a comfortable chair, taking a few deep breaths, and then just start writing. “It’s not aggressive,” Gruman says, “it’s something you can do by yourself, and it gives you the chance to see your feelings in black and white and then make plans to do something about them.”
This Research Can Help All of Us
At some point in life, nearly everyone is unfortunately touched by depression. Whether it is you yourself or a loved one going through it, it can seem impossible to lift the fog at times.
As medical studies confirm, creative expression can help lift depression. If you or a loved one is going through depression, give emotional journaling a try. When the thoughts in your head overpower your ability to speak, this is the best time to write them out onto paper. Give each thought its own line so that you can see them in black and white, one by one, and then burn the paper.
Or keep the paper and use it as the basis to expand your story. All lined up nice and neat on paper, the thoughts are no longer racing around your head. Now they can help you find reasons and meaning in your story. It’s your story, you have the right to determine its full value. And fortunately, it even has the value to heal your depression.
As always, this article is for informational purposes only and is not to be taken as medical advice. If this is a serious matter, there is absolutely no shame in seeking out professional medical care and it is encouraged. The earlier you get ahead of this, the better. I wish you the best!
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