Sunday, December 21, 2008

Creativity Cracks the Aging Code

As we age, creativity often peaks, and our need to create soars: Artist Georgia O’Keefe, for instance, did some of her best work in her later years, and Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her 70s. Likewise, author Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her 60s when she began to write her Little House on the Prairie books.

Besides the satisfaction of giving in to the urge to create, more and more research is pointing to the value of taking up a new interest, hobby, or craft as you age, learning an instrument, challenging yourself with word games and crossword puzzles, and seeking out unique experiences. Not only can these creative activities help you stay active and interested in life, but they have potent mental and physical effects, too, which researchers are only now beginning to explore.

What they’ve learned so far: We need the charge of doing something creative to feel good mentally, particularly as the decades pass. According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment, that’s because the level of the brain chemical dopamine, which brings on a natural high, declines as we age. By seeking out novel experiences, we can trigger dopamine surges and regain that feeling of satisfaction. George Washington University psychiatrist Gene Cohen, M.D., author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain and an expert on the health benefits of creativity for older adults, says that trying new things and being creative also promotes brain plasticity (flexibility and growth) and even prompts our brains to rewire, which may fend off dementia and help to maintain health. “When you challenge the brain, your brain cells sprout new connections, called dendrites,” he explains, “and new contact points, called synapses, that improve brain communication.”

Dr. Cohen has the data to prove that creativity has a powerful anti-aging effect on the mind and body: In a two-year study of healthy older adults (over age 65) sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, he found that those who engaged in painting, writing, poetry, jewelry-making, or singing in a chorale had better overall physical health, made fewer visits to the doctor, used less medication, and had fewer health problems than a control group that didn’t participate in cultural programs. The “artsy” group also had better morale and reported less loneliness thanks to a feeling of self-control and mastery, and from maintaining their social engagements. “This study proves that you can’t have a real health promotion program for the elderly without an art component,” he says.

Another benefit of creative activities: They’re sustainable. “Art has been in the soul of the species since [the time of] cave people, and its benefits make us keep coming back to it,” Dr. Cohen notes. So while you may not stick to an exercise program, you may stick to an art program—which will not only give you a psychological boost, but also a brain boost.

Creative pursuits can also help us relax and distract us from stressful situations—and the better we are at relieving stress, the longer we'll live and the healthier we'll be. Harvard's Herbert Benson, M.D., reports that rhythmic and repetitive activities such as knitting and sewing can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and other physical measures of stress. And Harvard’s George Valliant, M.D., who followed 824 people from their teens to old age for over 50 years, found that creativity is one of the pursuits that makes retirement rewarding and satisfying.

The “If Not Now, When?” Phenomenon
Dr. Cohen says that as we enter our 40s and 50s, our brains start firing on all cylinders. We begin using both sides of our brain more (the logical and analytical left side and the artistic right side), which stimulates us to be more creative—while being more creative prompts us to integrate both left- and right-brain capabilities in a happy cycle of artistic energy. As an added bonus, we become more confident and comfortable with ourselves as we age, and so we may cast off the need to conform: After 40, we want to showcase our true selves through the way we speak, act, dress, and the things we do. And we may shed the “should have” way of living we previously endorsed, embracing instead the life we really want to live.

“There is a lovely interlude in middle age, when we haven’t lost the mental nimbleness of youth and yet we’ve gained wisdom,” says Sue Shellenbarger, author of The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women. This is when creativity can blossom with age, she notes, and become a means for validating who we are now.

Dr. Cohen agrees that many people in mid- to late-life go through a psychological “liberation” phase characterized by an increasing urge and feeling of freedom to do the things they’ve always wanted to do. They hear an inner voice that asks them “If not now, when?” and “Why not—what can they do to me?” that gives them the courage and confidence to try something new and self-expressive.

Boosting Your Creativity
So where and how do you start to put more creative oomph in your life? “Creativity is a form of problem-solving,” explains Tera Leigh, an artist and author of How To Be Creative If You Never Thought You Could, so it can apply to almost any situation in life. What’s more, small changes in your attitude can have a big impact on your creative output. To wit:

Take your creative urges seriously. Shellenbarger encourages thinking about what truly is going to make you happy in old age. “Go towards what gives you joy and allot time to pursue these things—an hour or two a week, at least, and hopefully more.”

Find your creative personality. Relax—you don’t have to search for it. “Your creative personality is already inside of you,” says Leigh. “You don’t have to do anything except invite it to come out and play.” That said, some people are Martha Stewart types who like detail-oriented arts, like quilting, beading, or decorative painting —while others may have a passion for plunging in and making a mess, so they might prefer ceramics, cooking, or scrapbooking. Experiment to find which creative pursuits best suit your style.

Start thinking of new ways to do old things. Rearrange your furniture, throw a new ingredient in an old recipe, or learn a new dance step. Or “challenge yourself to come up with five new ways to do something at work that bores you now,” advises Leigh. “These are simple ways to train yourself to think of life in a new way. The more you think outside the box, the more it will become a habit.”

Create an artist’s space for yourself. Even if it’s just a couple of boxes for your art materials that you hide on a shelf or under the bed, it’s important to honor your artistic urges by claiming a space to express them, says Leigh.

Take a class or join a group. One of the major benefits of creativity is that there are lots of classes to enhance it and they offer lots of opportunities for socializing—both important, since aging studies indicate life-long learning and having a strong social network are critical to a happy, healthy old age.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Books on Creativity I LOVE

If you're like me, you're drawn to the host of creativity and craft books on the market. And they seem to get more beautiful and enticing every day! The pictures, the graphics, the beautiful stock they're printed on. They are SO hard to resist, and so inspirational.

Here are a few favorite books that have stoked my fire and that I hold dear to my heart:

The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor
The Power of Positive Choices
Gail McMeekin (
Two of my favorite books by a creativity and career coach and therapist. The former is filled with fabulous nuggets of advice and wisdom from women who have pursued creative paths in all walks of life, as well as exercises to help you awaken your own creativity. The latter addresses how to make your life better by subtracting negative aspects and adding positive choices.

Visual Journaling: Going Deeper Than Words
Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox
A fabulous workbook that contains the wisdom of expressive art therapists and teaches you how to use journal drawings to access your internal thoughts and feelings and release stress. It contains a 6-week program you can follow on your own or in a group.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
David Bayles and Ted Orland
An inspiring book about what making art is all about—the way it gets made, the fears that keep it from getting made, and some of our pervasive cultural assumptions about artists (like being born with talent is the only route to good art).

Creative Healing: How to Heal Yourself By Tapping Your Hidden Creativity
Michael Samuels, M.D., and Mary Rockwood Lane, R.N., M.S.N.
A medically based book on the healing powers of the arts that teaches you how to find your “inner artist-healer.” It describes the history of art and healing, covers techniques for using art, writing, dance and music to heal yourself, as well as how professional artists use art to heal themselves and others.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
Julia Cameron
The bible on creativity by the guru of creativity. Julia Cameron’s fabulous book teaches you how to get past creative blockages (and she thinks we’re all blocked to one extent or another). The book contains a 12-week self-motivated program in discovering and recovering your creative self, as well as suggestions for starting an “Artist’s Way” group.

Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else
Alice Domar, Ph.D. and Henry Dreher
This book, by a psychologist who is director of the Mind/Body Center for Women’s Health at the Mind/Body Medical Institute established by Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson, focuses on reducing stress and reconstructing your life so you care for yourself better. There’s a great section on bringing play and creativity into your life.

The Tao of Watercolor: A Revolutionary Approach to the Practice of Painting; The Zen of Creative Painting: An Elegant Design for Revealing Your Muse; The Yoga of Drawing: Uniting Body, Mind and Spirit in the Art of Drawing and Making Pearls: The True Nature of Creative Life
Jeanne Carbonetti
If you think you can’t draw or paint, try one of these books. Jeanne has come up with some unique techniques for accessing your natural artistic style—instead of fighting it in an effort to make your art conform to traditional standards—using the mind-body principles of Zen and the Tao.

Art and Healing: Using Expressive Art to Heal Your Body, Mind, and Spirit
Barbara Ganim
A truly unique book that gathers much of the scientific work done on the healing power of expressive art therapy and explains it to the layperson. The book describes the ways in which creating art can produce emotional and physical benefits for those involved in the process and those who view it. It teaches readers how to express negative, painful and repressed emotions and deal with serious illnesses through art therapy techniques, exercises and visualizations.

The Knitting Sutra: Craft As a Spiritual Practice
Susan Gordon Lydon
This charming book of essays likens knitting to meditation, and describes it as one key to spiritual enlightenment.

Stretching Lessons: The Daring That Starts from Within
Sue Bender
A lovely little book about the author’s quest to grow her soul beyond her self-imposed limits…to stretch and become “bigger than.”

No More Secondhand Art: Awakening the Artist Within
Peter London
An interesting, somewhat academic, book on finding the originality and artist within you.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Betty Edwards
A now-classic volume that uses split-brain research to show even the most logical among us how to tap into our drawing ability by accessing the right side of the brain.

What are your favorites?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Expressive Art Meets Turkey Day

As Janet Whitehead wrote in her post on November 26th (thanks Janet!), we creative types need to stick together. We can feel very vulnerable and shy about making and especially showing our art. In fact, I have a tough time showing my work to others. That’s why it was so interesting to participate in an expressive art session this past weekend.

My sister’s friend Anne-Marie asked if I would be a guinea pig for a class she wants to teach in expressive art therapy. I said yes and brought along my friend Connie. We weren’t quite sure what we were getting into, but we knew it had something to do with making collages to decorate a box.

Anne-Marie began the session by leading us in a group relaxation exercise as we listened to soothing Asian-inspired music. Both were designed to help us shift into a creative frame of mind and home in on a theme for our art that day. Then she asked us each to take a box and create a collage with it, using whatever materials struck our fancy from a buffet of options she’d laid out for us: photographs and words from magazines, beads, buttons, ribbons, stickers, feathers, glitter…whatever we wanted. There were no rules.

And so the crafting began! We all dug into our projects with enthusiasm. Connie discarded her box top and made a kind of diorama out of the inside of her box—a lush tropical scene. Linda, my sister, went conceptual and cerebral, focusing on words like “unconventional” and using images (an owl flying) sparingly. As the box was opened, new meanings of words and phrases were revealed. She said she viewed the box as a portal to a new, big-picture perspective on her life. Anne-Marie used the top of a rectangular cardboard necklace box and dropped down one long side to create an ethereal, almost 3-dimensional scene of a woman lying in a field, dreaming. As for me, I spent the allotted time decorating the top of my chosen box in greens and blues, centering around a photo of a sandy beach path leading out into the ocean and the words “the simple life,” “create,” and “love.” I dotted it with some of the products I’ve been experimenting with such as Angelina fibers, clay embellishments, and painted and ironed Tyvek paper. (You can see my creation in the photo).

After we finished our boxes, Anne-Marie asked us to pair up and have our boxes “talk” to us about what they were saying.

We tried, really we tried to go with the flow, but at this point, Linda, Connie and I looked at one another crazily, desperately searching for a way to circumvent this part of the program. Unable to contain ourselves, we burst out laughing. That step was just one expressive, touchy-feely step too far for us cynics. We hadn’t realized we were signing up for a class where inanimate objects talk about our deepest feelings! Anne-Marie, in her gentle, sweet way took no offence, but instead laughed along with us—and then magically reined us in. Eventually, she got us to pair off and speak about what our boxes were trying to say.

My box spoke of the life I am trying to create—a simple life filled with love and creative expression. Connie’s box focused on the lush success she hopes to make of her year-old coaching business for high school and college graduates, Six Figure Start ( Linda’s talked about the way her perception of her world is opening up to encompass parallel universes and its infinite possibilities, while Anne-Marie’s focused on dreaming and believing in yourself to become who you really want to be.

Beyond that, as soon as I saw everyone elses’ boxes I was immediately struck with feelings of (A) jealousy and (B) inadequacy. I know, I know…I’m not supposed to compare my work to others. I’m not supposed to put myself down or judge my work. But I do. I guess that’s part of my artistic struggle. But I was so floored by what the other three had created. It never even OCCURRED to me to work inside the box lid or the box itself. It’s not that I didn’t like what I did, I just didn’t think it was as special as everyone else’s creation. (This is a same-old, same-old reaction for me.) Ironically, while I was flagellating myself for taking a conventional tactic, my sister thought my approach showed I was actually thinking outside the box.

It was a fascinating exercise—both for what we learned about ourselves, and what we learned about how others perceived us. In fact, days later we’re still analyzing the process and the products!

Want to know more about expressive art therapy? Here’s an excerpt about it from my book, Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes

(available for $12.95 from Wheatmark Publishing at

In the beginning, there was art therapy. Along with dance, music, poem, writing and drama therapies, the process of making art has been used for years to reach those who can't articulate what they're feeling—from autistic and abused children to the mentally disturbed. More recently, expressive art therapy has emerged. Whereas traditional art therapy focuses on the product and an art therapist's interpretation of that product, expressive art therapy targets the process of creating art as a cathartic and healing experience, and the interpretation of the product by the creator, not the therapist (the thinking being that while others may express opinions about your art, only you can know what your creation truly and personally says.)

Today, it has been established that the expressive art therapy process also has benefits for psychologically healthy people, helping them to achieve their potential as individuals, to grow and change, and to live life to the fullest.

Expressive art therapists believe that negative thoughts and painful or fearful feelings take up actual physical residence in the body. Traditionally, talk therapy—psychotherapy—has been used to release and resolve such feelings, but simply talking about your feelings may not release them, and may actually lead you to relive them. "Griping and moaning about your feelings won't make you feel better," says expressive art therapist Barbara Ganim. "It just reactivates the stress response." A more effective way to approach their release may be through expressive art therapy. Because imagery is the inner language of the mind-body—it reacts to images of a thought before it recognizes the words that describe that thought, according to the split-brain research of Dr. Roger Sperry—drawing and visually expressing what you are feeling is often cathartic in a way that just talking isn't.

In working with cancer patients for the past decade, Ganim has found that "as soon as a patient expresses a painful emotion through color, shape, and form, it energetically releases blocked energy and stops the stress response. Art moves stress-producing emotions and blockages out of the body using the body's own language of imagery," she says.

The Expressive Art Process
In her book Visual Journaling: Going Deeper Than Words, Ganim describes a process she has developed for helping patients go deeper with their creative work, to tap into the healing benefits. Here's the technique in brief:
Step 1: Set an intention. "Real healing comes through intention and expression," says Ganim. "While a mindless activity such as knitting can create a relaxing and meditative state, its effects are only temporary." To truly access your body's deeper innate ability to both heal itself and even prevent illness and stabilize itself, you have to approach your craft with a mission. Your intention can take any number of forms…you might wish to gain insight into why the prospect of seeing your family makes you feel anxious, release anger against your boss, examine the knot of tension in your head that is causing pain or heal a chronic physical illness such as arthritis. Try to be very specific in your intention.

Step 2: Quiet your mind. To access your feelings and their associated images, to quiet the left brain and give the right brain wider reign, Ganim says you need to disconnect from the distracting thoughts in your mind. You do this by sitting in a comfortable position in a quiet room, closing your eyes and breathing deeply and slowly. Focus on your breath, the exhale and the inhale. Now, breathing normally, allow your attention to drift to any part of your body where you're feeling tension, discomfort or pain, and focus on the sensation you feel there.

Step 3: Keeping your eyes closed, imagine what the sensation (or feeling) you've identified in your body would look like if it were an image. What colors, shapes and forms would that sensation have? The image might be realistic—a mountain, a house, a chair—or abstract, such as a series of squiggly lines. Only you need to know what the image is meant to convey.

Step 4: Create your image. Open your eyes and draw your image with any medium you like—colored pencils, paints, pastels or even create a free-form image on the sewing machine.

Step 5: Transform the negative image into a positive image—one that takes your stress-producing emotion and represents it in a more constructive way of reacting to the situation or issue causing you distress. This is the true key to healing with expressive arts and crafts of any kind, says Ganim. "Transformation occurs when you replace an image representing a negative thought or an angry or destructive emotion with a new image that is positive, peaceful and loving," she explains, "which releases its psychological hold on you." When you change the image in your mind, your body and your spirit respond in kind. She calls this "re-envisioning." The specific technique involves looking at a work you've made about a stressful emotion, having a dialogue with it about what it is saying and trying to get a new, more positive perspective on it by imagining how the image needs to be changed so that it feels less stressful, and then drawing or painting over the old, negative image or making a new piece of artwork that feels more positive.

Copyright Nancy Monson
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