3 Ways Creativity Can Help Mental Health, From the Musician Jewel
Singer-songwriter Jewel didn’t have an easy upbringing. Her childhood was marked by neglect, abuse and anxiety. At 18, she became homeless. Jewel started writing songs because she didn’t know how else to cope, and when she sang them at bars for an audience, she saw her own anguish reflected back at her. “I watched people in pain every day,” she told TIME. “I made a commitment in my life to try to figure out what to do with pain. That journey set me off on an incredible adventure that involved music, but really the number-one goal always was: How do I advocate for myself? How do I fight for my happiness?”
In a recent episode of TIME for Health Talks, Jewel and her friend Dr. Blaise Aguirre, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, spoke about creative ways for young people to take care of their mental health during stressful times.
Writing serves as a form of mindfulness for Jewel, helping her stay in the present moment without self-judgment. In her early years, “every time I wrote, I learned something,” she said. “I noticed things I didn’t realize I noticed, and I always felt calmer and less anxious. If you’re observant and curious, you’re forced into the present.”
You don’t have to be an artist, poet, painter or sculptor for creativity to aid your mental health. “I think of creativity in a way not solely focused on art,” Aguirre said. Instead, think of it as mind-expansion, or seeing things in a new and joyful way—not necessarily making something tangible. “Maybe going for a walk is the new creation, because now you’re outside, and you’re seeing the world in a new way,” he suggested.
Don’t dismiss the small things
Aguirre believes in the benefits of living an “antidepressant life“: one filled with lifestyle choices that can improve mood immediately. “There are things that you can do that are going to lift your mood in any case,” Aguirre said. These can include any activity, like hiking or reading a book, that stops the brain from fixating on negative thoughts, and spending time outdoors to stimulate brain chemicals that increase happiness. Meditating, exercising and fostering social connections also help.
Oh, and so does skipping. “You cannot be sad and skip at the same time,” Aguirre said. Once, Aguirre skipped with one of his patient across the Harvard campus to make sure he made it to his therapy session. They looked ridiculous, but “by the time we got there, both of our moods had lifted,” Aguirre said. With another patient, he tried loudly laughing—which releases serotonin—until the patient joined in. Weird, he knows, but it helped.
Of course, medication is often appropriate and necessary, and mental health conditions cannot be solely solved by a giggle. But easy strategies like these can have real effects. “The conditions for happiness exist right now,” said Aguirre. “Little things can make big changes.”
Notice negative thoughts—and change the script
Something that Jewel did during childhood to help herself feel better was to actively try to notice which negative thoughts and compulsions she kept having, and train herself to change them. Whenever she felt the urge to shoplift, for example, she forced herself to write a song. At first, she hated it, but the more she replaced a bad habit with a good one, the more she grew to like it. Eventually, she was writing 10 songs a day.
Through her charity, Jewel now shares these strategies with children. “We curate what photos we show on social media, but we don’t curate our own thoughts,” Jewel said. “But you can. Once you start teaching kids that, you start seeing these kids turn around.”
Scientifically, negative thoughts and internal dialogues really do have the power to change your brain for the worse. “The way we learn anything is by repetition,” Aguirre said. “When you repeat negative thoughts, your brain gets good at negative thoughts. You repeat, ‘Nobody will ever love me.’ You repeat, ‘My life sucks.’ You repeat, ‘I’m depressed.’ And then you look for things in the environment that tell you that that’s the way you should feel. You’re just going to get good at thinking that; it does rewire your brain.”
The solution isn’t to delude yourself into thinking things are great. “But you’ve got to recognize that that’s a pattern,” Aguirre said. “Once you start seeing the world through that lens, you miss out on all the other wonderful things that exist.” Where you choose to focus matters.
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