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Can Creating Heal Us? The Role of Creativity in Resilience

Can Creating Heal Us? The Role of Creativity in Resilience
Liam McKay April 19, 2024 · 8 min read

We all face challenges in our lives that can impact us in a major way. The way we deal with those challenges, problems, or major events depends on how resilient we are. People with a higher level of resilience are able to process a negative situation and move forward from it more quickly than those with lower levels of resilience. While there’s a natural level of resilience within us, there are things we can do to become better prepared to handle these negative moments in our lives and make our own resilience stronger. There is growing evidence that creativity and the arts can play a key role in healing and can give us one route to becoming more resilient.
Having resilience doesn’t make you immune to challenges or hardship, you will still experience those moments and feel their impact, instead, it just makes you better positioned to deal with the highs and lows that life can throw your way, and more focused on bouncing back while keeping your levels of stress lower throughout recovery.
Resilience is not something you can turn on or off, and it takes years to build up and develop, but there are things that you can focus on to build your resilience over time, these are commonly referred to as the “The 7 Cs of Resilience†which were developed by pediatrician Ken Ginsberg, MD – and they are as follows:
Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Contribution, Coping, Control
While creativity doesn’t get it’s own specific mention in this list, engaging in creative activities and creating thinking will give you the chance to develop on each of the individual attributes outlined by Ginsberg – so we can look to utilize creativity as a way of healing and building on our own personal ‘7 C’s of Resilience†over time.
The practice of creativity and art being used as a tool for coping is nothing new. Hospital patients have been encouraged to engage in writing, drawing, singing, photography, poetry, and performing throughout their recovery for many years now, and this is all for good reason. A fascinating report by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health, and Wellbeing titled “Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing†found that: “The arts can help keep us well, aid our recovery and support longer lives better lived.“ Furthermore, they discovered that “Arts therapies have been found to alleviate anxiety, depression, and stress while increasing resilience and wellbeing.â€
The same report also informs us of the overall health and healing benefits that creativity can bring to our daily lives:

“a high level of wellbeing is associated with positive functioning, which includes creative thinking, productivity, good interpersonal relationships and resilience in the face of adversity, as well as good physical health and life expectancy”.

The idea here is that engaging in a creative endeavor gives a person time to illustrate their feelings and their negative experiences in a way that they might not be able to do so verbally, in-turn giving them the time to examine and process their trauma or hardship in a new light.

This is great for recovery in the short term, and it also helps to build long term confidence, competence, and character, which will help to make that person more resilient to future problems as a result.
This could explain why artistic expression seems to be a common response to major world incidents. If you think back to any tragic event throughout history, there has always been an outpouring of support, defiance, and reflection following the story that comes in one creative form or another. In recent years we can see this in the numerous ´Pray for Paris’ artworks that appeared after the awful events of 13th November 2015. Likewise the 9/11 Memorial & Museum has an entire gallery of artwork created in response to the tragic events of September 11.
Focusing on the long term benefits is the key to resilience-building through creativity. Taking part in any creative pursuit will likely have a positive impact over time, it doesn’t have to be in response to adversity, or directly related to a tough time in your life – but it could help prepare you to better handle one in the future. These sample studies featured in the “Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing†report support this idea:

A 2014 study of post-retirement adults found that — as compared to a group engaged in art appreciation — participants who actively produced art over 10 weeks showed greater functional connectivity in the brain, which was related to stress reduction and psychological resilience.
In 2015, researchers at the University of Newcastle worked with BBC Two’s Trust Me, I’m a Doctor to establish which activities boosted brain function. Healthy but fairly sedentary adults aged between 50 and 90 were randomly assigned to groups undertaking brisk walking, Sudoku or life drawing. In terms of enjoyment, the art classes were the most popular. – When it came to cognitive functioning, all the groups showed improvements, but the clear winners were the art group.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a creative person, don’t worry, simply surrounding yourself with art and culture can improve your overall health too, as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing report found that “Cultural engagement (this refers to attendance at concert halls, galleries, heritage sites, libraries, museums, and theatres) reduces work-related stress and leads to longer, happier lives.â€

Following on from this, if you would like to pick up a new creative skill to help build your own resilience, but don’t feel confident with your creative abilities, you can draw comfort from the idea that even the process learning a new creative skill will provide you with positive results that aide your resilience – so picking up a new creative skill is a real win-win on this front. Here’s a quote from the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges which helps us understand this thought better:

A 2004 study by Cathie Hammond at the University of London concluded that lifelong learning was associated with (…) self-esteem, self-efficacy, a sense of purpose and hope, competences, and social integration (Hammond, 2004).

Being creative is just one small part of what it takes to become more resilient, and it’s never going to be enough on its own. Writing this piece during a global pandemic (COVID-19) I’m sure we’ve probably all had our levels of resilience tested in these past few months, so keeping your mind and body active with a creative outlet that you enjoy could be one way to cope, but it’s important to remember that there is help out there available to you if something ever comes up that you can’t cope with on your own, and when your resilience is pushed too far.
Regarding the positive impact that art seems to have on patients (and staff) in hospitals that we touched upon earlier, I’d like to end this article by recommending some fantastic charities that I found while researching this topic – so that you can help build up the resilience in many others by something as simple as providing artwork or creative materials to a hospital:

  • Creations For Cures – provides art kits and art programs for children and families battling cancer. Founded by a cancer survivor who used painting as an expressive outlet and confidence builder this would be a great way to support healing through creativity.
  • Project Sunshine – send craft kits/care packages to medical centers for young patients who face long hours of isolation, since family members and professionals cannot always be present.
  • Paintings in Hospitals – has been around since 1959 and it provides arts and craft materials as well as workshops and displays for hospitals across the UK.
  • Foundation for Hospital Art – Over 1,000,000 volunteers and patients have united to create over 49,000 paintings for over 7,500 hospitals in 195 countries. If you can find a way to help, they are seeking volunteers and donations.

If you yourself are creative minded and wish to donate some of your own work to help impact the lives of others going through hardship, the Boston Children’s Hospital is seeking artwork to transform waiting areas and hospital rooms. Submit your artwork and read through the requirements.
Further Reading on Creativity & Resilience

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Liam McKay

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