The tortured artist is a trope most of us have come across, presented in varying stages of dramatic flair over the course of our lives. To be sure, the artistic persona, as presented in the media and cinema, is often presented as someone who is not mentally healthy, balanced, or at times even mentally sound. The creative arts are full of unhinged stereotypes, where an artist’s journey is often mythologised as a descent into madness.
What the stereotypes fail to present is how said artists also benefit from their seemingly cursed occupations. The act of creating, and creative mediums like painting and music are powerful tools that have proven mental health and therapeutic benefits. Because artistic expression and emotional expression are almost synonymous with each other (hence giving rise to the tortured passionate artist trope), they can function in a mutually beneficial way: which is why the arts, and the creation of art, should be viewed as an asset to, and not to the detriment of, our mental health.
Why is Art Good for You?
Regardless of whether one is on the consumer or the creator side of the arts, research has proven that occupying either end of the spectrum has mental health benefits. The simple act of visiting an art gallery or museum can lower anxiety and depression, decrease cortisol levels, and increase our aptitude for critical thinking. Art therapy has been clinically shown to help with anxiety, depression, PTSD, grief, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
One particular study known as the Nord-Trondelag Health Study shows that there is a correlation between participating in cultural activities such as visiting an art gallery, watching a movie, or attending a concert, and an increase in life satisfaction along with lower rates of anxiety and depression in both men and women. Interestingly, the benefits did not discern between the creators and the consumers of art: people who enjoy viewing art get the same health benefits as those who enjoy making it instead. If we needed one more reason to visit an art gallery in the coming future, it may be this: viewing artwork we find beautiful triggers a release of dopamine in the brain — the scintillating sensation from our pleasure-and-reward centre that accompanies such things as sex, the smell of baking cookies, or listening to music.
Mindfulness, Art and Mental Health
The benefits of exercising mindfulness has been extensively reported for years. Defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations,” mindfulness is a practice most often linked with meditation, breathing exercises, or another restful non-activity activity. The benefits of practicing mindfulness is purported to benefit mental well-being and resilience.
Now look at the definition for “flow state” — i.e. a state we enter during bouts of immersive work that is often creative: “A mental state in which a person is completely focused on a single task or activity. They are directing all of their attention toward the task, and they do not experience many thoughts about themselves or their performance.”
Also known as being “in the zone,” a flow state is essential to creative work, but it is also inadvertently an exercise in mindfulness. The two are shown to be close cousins for both require a mindset of being “in the moment.” There are also numerous reports that tout the benefits of practicing mindfulness to creativity, as mindfulness boosts divergent thinking, which in turn benefits creative thinking. For those who fancy themselves a tad too restless to enjoy the benefits of mindful meditation, a painting session may just do the trick.
Meaning Through Self-Expression
The act of creating in and of itself is an exercise in self-expression: helping us find a greater meaning in our experiences and foster a greater connection with ourselves and the world around us. Art helps us process pain and grief, but also joy and remembrance, by giving voice to our emotions. In taking negative feelings and expressing them in another outlet such as art or music, we are able to give them another form. We’ve all heard somewhere that the best songs come from the darkest places, for music is an age-old stage for heartbreak. By giving ugly experiences and feelings a canvas (or song, or film) on which to run amok, they could be channelled into something healthier — and possibly more beautiful.
For more articles on the impact of the arts on mental health, read:
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Writer | Vanessa Lee
Vanessa is an art, fashion and lifestyle writer and creative consultant from Vancouver, Canada. She is currently based in Hong Kong.