Creative Expression and Healing
Art can transform experience and help express painful feelings
Creative expression can transform our painful reactions to traumatic or difficult experiences, providing a way to give voice to painful feelings.
Charlize Theron is an example. As a teen, she saw her mother shoot and kill her abusive and violently threatening father in self defense.
She said in a 2004 interview that her work has helped her deal with it:
“I think acting has healed me. I get to let it out. I get to say it and feel it in my work and I think that’s why I don’t go through my life walking with this thing, and suffering.”
In a later British newspaper interview she added: “People want to think that I am this tortured soul, that my work is drawn only from this one well.
“And though I would never sit here and say that it didn’t mark me, or mould me into the person that I am, my life has had many painful journeys and heartbreaks since my father died, many of which I draw on for my work.”
[Photo is from her Facebook page.]
How can creative expression help us deal with difficult emotions?
The photo is Sally Field in the 2015 film “Hello, My Name is Doris.” She has talked about being a teenager and acting in her TV show “The Flying Nun” as being “a hugely important time in my life” but also said the work became very depressing.
“I hated it every day. I hated the garbage. I felt it was just trivia that I had to say.”
She recalls that “Madeleine Sherwood, who played Mother Superior, recognized my depression and how difficult this was for me and she recognized why, and she took me to The Actor’s Studio.
“I didn’t know that’s where I needed to be, and it came a huge turning point in my life.” (From her imdb profile.)
In an interview for Variety, she said training at the Studio “really began to form who I was not only as an actor, but helped me be who I became as a person.
“Because it gave me…acting tools, that I can go into myself and if I can call on those pieces of myself as an actor, then I can call on them as a human, and I couldn’t do that before.”
From article Sally Field Opens Up to Hailee Steinfeld About Fighting Depression as a Teen.
Channel negative feelings into creative work
Harvard professor and creativity author Shelley Carson writes about using creative activities to reduce anxiety and stress, and notes “they even have the power to aid in the healing process if you’ve experienced trauma or injury.
“That’s why art therapy, music therapy, and even drama therapy are often added to standard forms of treatment for depression and anxiety.”
But she warns, “if negative moods persist for extremely long periods or are severe, you should seek the help of a healthcare professional rather than trying to ‘self-medicate’ with creative work.”
“You don’t have to be a trained writer, musician, or artist to receive the benefits of creative activity.
“Personal expression of emotion is powerful, even from the untrained creator.
“There are a number of ways you can channel your negative feelings into creative work.
“Standard outlets include through music (singing/playing an instrument or composing a melody), writing (poetry, short stories, or journaling) art (drawing and sculpture), and drama.”
She points out other forms of creative expression:
“Florists can express moods through flower arrangements, and chefs use spices and herbs to suggest different moods; you can also creatively express yourself through photography, gardening, quilting, or woodworking.
“There are virtually endless ways you can creatively express anxiety, sadness, loneliness, or anger and transform that emotion into something original and useful.”
She notes, “You don’t have to be talented, and you don’t have to share what you produce with anyone else.
“Don’t judge your creative work – just get involved in it! The point is to turn a potentially destructive emotion into a constructive activity.”
From her article Use Creativity to Combat Negative Emotions.
Shelley Carson earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University, where she continues to teach and conduct research on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience.
She is author of the book Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.
Dr. Carson gave a presentation on “Stress, Depression and the Creative Brain” at the Global Stress Summit.
“Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing.”
Julia Cameron, from her book The Artist’s Way.
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Meryl Streep has said of acting:
“It has to do with working out private passions that are almost inscrutable to me…
“I just get to work out all my murderous thoughts and my weaknesses and my failures and things I don’t want to do as a parent or work out on the family.
“I need [acting] as an outlet. I love it. It feeds my imagination. It connects me to understanding.”
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Artist Marlene Azoulai writes, “I was first introduced to Art Therapy while in a psychiatric institution. There, I learned that when there are no words, there can be pictures.
“I learned that an artist is not necessarily someone who has studied art, but one who has something to say, and the courage to say it. I learned that an artist is someone who makes art to save her life.”
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A safe place to explore the shadow self
In her article Giving Life to Carl Rogers Theory of Creativity, therapist Natalie Rogers says that “using the expressive arts gives people a safe place to explore their shadow side…
“The shadow is the part we have repressed in our lives. Some people have denied their anger and rage for a lifetime.”
See more quotes by psychologists and artists in my much longer article The Alchemy of Art: Creative Expression and Healing.
Also see collection of Psychology Today articles: When Art Heals.
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Image from book: Art Saves: Stories, Inspiration and Prompts Sharing the Power of Art by Jenny Doh.
See more titles on the page: Books To Fuel Your Creative Mind.
Emotional Health Resources:
Programs, books, articles and sites to improve your emotional balance and wellbeing for a better creative life.
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Article: Creative People, Trauma and Mental Health
Trauma takes many forms, and has different sources and levels of impact on our mental health for each of us.
See quotes by and about many artists who have experienced rape, physical abuse and other experiences, and use creative expression to help heal – including Alice Sebold, Allison Anders, SARK, Halle Berry, Lady Gaga, will.i.am, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonathan Safran Foer and many others.
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Article: Healing and Creativity: SARK and Others
SARK said she knows that art is healing “because of how it heals me and how I see it healing other people every day. Through art, we come alive through the deep connections to our souls and spirits.”
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