Sketching, Sculpting and Seriously Bad Singing: Why Self-Expression Through Art is Good for Your Mental Health

A Guest Post by Lucy Hayes, Biology MSci – University of Bristol

I was quite shocked at how difficult this piece was to write—I know jack sh*t about art. I’m a fourth year Biology student and I have dedicated considerable time into nurturing my mental health through strengthening my spiritual health—not quite seances and crystals, but more like meditation and mindfulness. It’s beyond my scope to distil such beautiful and broad topics into a short, snappy article—but being the ambitious little sh*t that I am, I gave it a go. Genuinely, I learned so much from writing this piece. The topics are incredibly important in the current climate, and I hope it helps whoever reads this with their artistry, mental, or spiritual health.

HOW MAKING ART BOOSTS YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

How do you express yourself? Perhaps you sing in the shower, prance around in your pyjamas or even shimmy down the staircase.  Whatever it is, self-expression encourages you to reveal your weird, whacky and wonderful self to others. It’s completely endearing and one of the greatest forms of self-love.

So take a moment.

When was the last time you expressed yourself?

Research suggests self-expression induces states of relaxation, happiness, and playfulness. The purpose of this article is to explore the benefits of expressionism through art and how it positively impacts mental health.

The arts retain a long-established connection to mental health—whether it’s singing, dancing, acting, composing or painting. Mental health, art and spirituality are also intertwined—and for the sceptics among us, you’ll be delighted to discover spiritual health is recognized by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as fundamental to our wellbeing. These associations will be discussed, and ultimately, this quick read may encourage you to love yourself a little bit more (perhaps with a paintbrush in hand).

You’re not f*cking Van Gogh, so don’t be shocked when it’s sh*t

For many of us, the lockdown has placed us in a purgatory—we may have planned the next steps in our lives, but we’re barely allowed to walk 10 steps from our front door. In experiencing this pause in life, some of us may feel a loss of empowerment. Empowerment is when we become more confident and regain a bit more control in life.

If you feel you have lost this, it is completely normal and okay. Besides, art can offer some respite.  Studies have shown deciding to create a piece of art can increase a person’s sense of control. In taking bold, calculated risks, the participants in one study agreed they had to accept the consequences of their actions and this was, for them, empowering. So, grab your colours, sit down and openly create something.

You don’t have to be f*cking Van Gogh, and if you’re like me, it will probably be sh*t. But that’s the point. Commend yourself for this act of self-care, and enjoy regaining control in this small exercise.

Great, I’ve painted a (pretty ugly) picture – what next?

Sometimes we attempt to ‘make sense’ of events external to us and this can negatively impact our mental health. With the current climate, many of us have reported increased symptoms anxiety and depression. Although we may succeed in understanding the external environment, this will only offer short-term relief if we remain confused about our internal environment. Our internal environment includes our thoughts, feelings and emotions.

An impressive study explored how meaning making through art can alleviate such distress. Meaning making is the act of opening up an internal space whereby our spiritual health is acknowledged, understood and explored through art materials and images.

Spiritual health in palliative care is ‘the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose, how they experience connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature and to the significant or sacred’.

Making art is deeply entwined with spirituality, as art acts as a vessel for the subconscious. One impressive study developed a model of spiritual care to validate the spiritual and mental health of participants diagnosed with cancer. The patients experienced high levels of anxiety and depression due to being abruptly faced with the existential questions of life. The participants were reported to have benefited from art therapy as it allowed freedom to recognize and explore their existential issues. A myriad of data has been collected in this field and many academics claim making art is a unique tool to understand what we are feeling and why.

So, once you’ve created your abomination, reflect on it and ask: What does this reveal about the condition of my internal environment? (Spoiler alert, it might require a spring clean).

The picture is a mess, my internal space is a mess – am I just a complete mess?

Who are you?

One in four of us living with mental illness may experience a loss of identity. This experience is chaotic and destabilizing as it can leave us with a feeling of ‘who am I’ and ‘where did I go?’. We may consider our identity in terms of self-image, self-development, roles, relationships or even who we will become. However, non-Western academics debate there is no ‘self’ because the wellbeing of an individual is inseparable from the state of others.

For example, if I become upset over the grotesque artwork I produce and share this frustration with loved ones, they receive this negative energy and feel upset too.  In the words of Zen Master and global spiritual leader Ticht Nacht Han ‘You are you, because I am me’. A long-term study followed an art therapy group over three years, and their perception of the self was documented. Some recalled their artwork as an ‘expression of the unconscious self’.

A sense of connection to something greater inadvertently helped them realize their place in the universe and how to help others. They regarded art-making as developing, reinforcing, and re-establishing their values and beliefs. In other words, it provided a vessel to explore the question: What it is like to be like this?

If our mental health has been strained and we desire to understand ourselves better, art can provide some relief. The introspective nature of art can help us realize, through deep reflection, the interconnectedness of nature. To have a positive impact on our own mental health, we must positively impact those around us. So perhaps we can create art with others in mind—and if it’s sh*t, that’s okay.

A final word on why self-expression is good for your mental health

Needless to say, the studies mentioned in this article are art therapy studies in a group setting with each participant in the samples suffering from subjective mental health conditions—therefore, to apply the findings in a ‘one size fits all’ individual basis is not reliable. However, as we are isolated in lockdown and may have access to a pens, pencils and paper, it is an opportunity to explore our internal space through art.

Moreover, the plethora of data in this field does suggest art and self-expression is good for our wellbeing and mental health. Importantly, the accessibility and awareness of art therapies in community-based health services remains relatively low. Moreover, spirituality in mental health services has been forgotten, and it is at the cost of a significant part of our wellbeing. Nonetheless, I hope this article has at least encouraged us to recognize the importance for art, in all its forms, for everyone’s mental health.

And finally, spirituality is something we all can nurture through mediums such as art—but the choice to explore this is up to you.

By Lucy Hayes, Biology MSci – University of Bristol


How do you flex your creative muscles? Does making art make you feel good? Let us know in the comments below ⤵

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