The Health Benefits Of Creativity (& Why We Don’t Need To Choose Between Conventional & Alternative Medicine)

Art credit: “Listening,” Shiloh Sophia

If you’ve been following what I write, you know I’ve done A LOT of writing about Covid, public health recommendations (including vaccination), and social justice and human rights lately. This is not my typical gig, but given the intersecting disasters we face, it’s felt more important than what I usually write about. That said, what I usually write about (Whole Health) is more relevant now than ever!

While many people in 2020 seemed to have a tendency to polarize into pro-conventional medicine/ pro-public health guidelines versus alternative medicine/ anti-public health guidelines camps (and while these camps got miserably political), I am now and have always tried to be the voice of no camps. As I wrote about in The Way We Make Health Decisions Need Not Be All Or Nothing, we can cherry-pick the best of both worlds and have better health outcomes by marrying the two.

As such, I will continue to use my platform to try to inform you of the latest updates in how to keep safe from Covid- from both sides of this unnecessary divide. I continue to believe that the best way we can survive this pandemic, both personally and collectively, is to practice the best of both camps. Bolster your immune system with healthy nutrition and supplements (if you are privileged enough to have that option), heal trauma (if you can afford a therapist), do what you can to keep the nervous system relaxed (meditation is cheap), get out in nature and exercise, practice the Six Steps To Healing Yourself that I teach in Mind Over Medicine, and try to keep your body from collapsing into chronic repetitive stress responses (with the awareness that this is hard if you’re in an oppressed or marginalized group fighting for equal rights right now.) ALSO…wear masks, social distance, get the Covid vaccine if it’s indicated for your risk group, get tested if you get symptomatic, and quarantine (and call your doctor) if you’re positive. There’s no reason we can’t optimize the body’s chances of surviving Covid if we get while also trying our damnedest not to get it in the first place. [To learn about the Six Steps To Healing Yourself, read the revised edition of Mind Over Medicine, or dive deep in the video course Six Steps To Radical Self Healing.]

With the idea that we can be proactive about self-care and healing while also taking advantage of the best of science and modern medicine, I’ll be spending some time focusing on how we can marry these camps into one unified and truly integrative approach to what I call “Whole Health.” I’ll be sharing some excerpts from the revised Mind Over Medicine, just so we don’t forget that we can benefit from conventional medicine’s technology and also complementary and alternative medicine’s cutting edge and ancient healing practices and philosophies. Let’s start today by examining the effect of creativity on your health, since creativity is one of the “stones” from Mind Over Medicine’s Whole Health Cairn.

How Does Creativity Impact Your Health?

In the revised edition of my New York Times bestseller Mind Over Medicine (which you can learn about and order here), I wrote about the impact of creativity on mental and physical health, something few doctors mention to patients when they are in physical or emotional pain. Yet healing and creativity make beautiful bed partners, as we’re exploring in Healing With the Muse. (Learn more and invite your muse to come out and play here ).

Creativity may seem like a peripheral factor in your health. Whoever heard of prescribing a hobby as preventive medicine or treatment for a disease? But scientific evidence shows that creative expression can elicit relaxation responses that counterbalance stress responses. In fact, artist Shiloh Sophia, who has been recognized by and presented to the United Nations, uses a painting process called “intentional creativity” to treat mental and physical illness in women who have experienced trauma.

Sadly, being creative gets a bad rap in our society. From the time we’re children, we are indoctrinated into thinking that science, math, and business are more valuable than art, music, theater, and writing. What our society seems to have forgotten is that being creative is not only fun; it’s also good for your health. Keep in mind that when I talk about expressing yourself creatively, I use a very loose definition of the word “creativity.” I’m not limiting creativity to the arts. In some cases, your form of creative expression might be painting, dancing, playing an instrument, or writing poetry. But you may also express your creativity by scrapbooking, flower arranging, photography, gardening, interior decorating, blogging, knitting, hula-hoop dancing, singing in the shower, or brainstorming business ideas. You might express yourself by cooking a gourmet meal, crafting music playlists, salsa dancing, or generating ideas for new products at work. You might create workshops, design jewelry, scrapbook, or bake the perfect cupcake.

Whatever you do, flexing your creative muscles is as important to overall health and happiness as flexing your biceps. The link between creativity and health has been well established, so anything that allows you to be more creative in your life benefits the physiology of your body and mind.

Health Benefits of Creativity

Creative expression releases endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters, reduces depression and anxiety, improves your immune function, relieves physical pain, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering your heart rate, decreasing your blood pressure, slowing down your breathing, and lowering cortisol.

Health benefits of creative expression include improved sleep, better overall health, fewer doctor visits, less use of medication, and fewer vision problems. Creativity decreases symptoms of distress and improves quality of life for women with cancer; it strengthens positive feelings, alleviates distress, and helps clarify existential and spiritual issues; it lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, reduces anxiety, and improves mood, social functioning, and self-esteem.

When we unleash the creative process, we tap into subconscious processes that help us heal—and thrive. Expressing yourself creatively exercises the right side of your brain, and doing so not only affects the body—it also affects your emotional state, leading to greater happiness. And as we’ll discuss in Chapter 7, it’s a well-documented phenomenon that happy people are more likely to be healthy.

The health benefits of creativity are incredible—and that’s just how creative expression affects the individual! Creativity also affects your work life, your relationships, your sexuality, your spirituality, and your mental health. As art therapist Marti Hand teaches, expressing yourself creatively also promotes social peace by enhancing compassion, tolerance, kindness, harmony, expansion, growth, collaboration, respect, and healing. Even seemingly unrelated benefits may arise as the result of expressing yourself creatively, such as improved fertility.

While your creative life can be a potent source of physiological relaxation, it can also be a stressor if you’re feeling creatively thwarted. One of my patients had been writing a novel in her head for years, but because she was so busy at work, her novel went unwritten. Every day, she felt stressed about the fact that she might die one day without ever writing her book. Creativity only heals you if you make the time to prioritize it. So don’t forget about expressing yourself in your own way.

We all have a song within us longing to be sung as only we can sing it. As poet Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Healing With The Muse

If you have a song still unsung in you, if you’ve been dreaming of writing your memoir, painting your masterpiece, or unleashing your muse in service to your healing journey, we welcome you to explore your creativity- through writing, drawing, music composition, or whatever lights you up! These are uncertain times, and creative expression among other creative types is good medicine, especially in 2021.

Join Healing With The Muse Here.

*For the nerds among you who get off on scientific studies, the revised edition of Mind Over Medicine has the bibliography for the assertions in this excerpt from the book.