Welcome to Exploring Wellness, a three part exploration by Dr. Janet Roseman on how medical students and residents can center their own well-being. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Below is Part 3: Prescription: Creativity.
You may have a creative hobby in your life that you love, such as listening to or playing music, dancing, writing, painting, crafting, or even an art exercise as simple as coloring. You may be surprised to learn that a recent analysis of over 100 studies on the impact of art on health and the ability to heal found that, for patients battling chronic illness, the arts (painting, drawing, dancing, pottery, photography, writing etc.) had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the health of patients.
The researchers found that art was a helpful and healing distraction that patients could use to cope with their illness because it improved well-being by decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones. It also reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. So, what does this study have to do with you? Creativity in all its forms can help you not only during your medical school training but as a healthy outlet that offers relief from the medical mind. In addition, it isn’t just that the art making activity and the creative expression are healing but also that art making (or any creative endeavor) offers you a chance to immerse yourself totally and align with the sacred forces of creativity. It’s easy to get lost in the process of creativity, and that is one of its myriad gifts. When you experience these gifts, then you truly know how healing a creative activity can be. There are literally hundreds of studies that show how effective the arts can be, particularly for oncology patients (but that is only because the researched populations were oncology patients). All of your future patients can receive its benefits. It is not unusual for patients who turn to creativity during a health crisis to find that this was what helped them through the difficult path of illness. It is immensely beneficial for patients to be able to connect with their creative side, a side that is not injured even though they may use their art to depict their pain. Creative pursuits can aid anyone who is injured (mind, body, or spirit) to recover loss of self-confidence, an integral part of any health challenge.
Creative activities also give you a chance to quiet your mind, to be still and engage only in the activity at hand, whether it be art making, dance, working out, gardening, or meditation. Even walking in quiet can be a creative activity, for it allows your mind to rest and you to concentrate on the beauty of breath while you walk. Remember, it is not just the activity and the freedom of creative expression that are healing but the chance to immerse oneself in that activity and align with the creative forces. I believe that, if more physicians encouraged their patients to utilize this creative and sacred process in the therapeutic interaction, the healing process could be much richer. For example, journaling, drawing, recording dreams, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness training can help bring you into the present moment of creativity and function as stress relievers. Asking yourself where your current pain or stress is in your body and drawing that visually can help you pinpoint where your anxiety lies. This exercise may sound silly, but it really works, and it is also quite useful for patients who may not be able to speak with you about a traumatic event that is affecting their health.
Ok, you may not think of yourself as an Artist with a capital “A,” but you don’t need any specific talents to engage in a creative endeavor. All that is required is the intention to create something. For some, a driving force to “make art” stems not only from an exploration of personal creativity but from an attempt to fix, to change, to process, or to understand one’s personal story. This personal story often contains aspects of pain, depression, or woundedness, and those elements are where the creative powers reside. Often, we flee those feelings because they are uncomfortable and anxiety producing. In an attempt to mask the truth, we search for outlets such as drugs, alcohol, or other destructive patterns. However, if we changed our perspective to understand that these so called “negative” feelings are really where the knowledge lies and made these feelings our allies, then they wouldn't hold the same power over us. This is not to say that all creative or artistic ventures must be triggered by pain; however, when you give yourself permission to delve deeper into your feelings—especially during the difficult times in medical school—it can be a potent healing prescription, more potent than any pharmaceutical intervention.
Creativity can be your prescription, and, once you find your specific creative calling, stick to it. Challenge yourself and learn a new skill, even while you are studying. You would be surprised at how helpful this can be. In the long run, once you find your own healing prescription, it will be easy to suggest to your future patients that they engage in some type of creative activity in the midst of their illness. Even if they have limited mobility, these activities will help restore their creative voice. I am reminded of the wonderful artist Frida Kahlo who painted compelling self-portraits as her own therapy while she endured over 40 surgeries as a result of a tragic accident when she was a teenager. Kahlo wanted to be a physician, and, if you study her work, you will see her knowledge of the human anatomy in each picture she painted. I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best. Kahlo understood that the creative process offers opportunities to be alone, to spend time with yourself, and to learn about yourself.
Probe deeper into your own creativity and share your insights with others so they can share their own creative adventures as well. Find your creative voice and reveal it, if only for yourself. You are worth the exploration.
Dr. Janet Lynn Roseman is an assistant professor in Integrative Medicine at Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine, Health Professions Division, Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. There she specializes in spirituality and medicine and teaches courses in humanism in medicine. She is the Founding Director for the Sidney Project in Spirituality and Medicine and Compassionate Care™, a unique residency education program.
She was awarded the Presidents Award from Lesley University for her work in oncology and was the second person in the world to be named a fellow in the Spirituality and Medicine fellowship at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Her research on compassion and spirituality has been published in numerous journals, and she edits an ongoing section on spirituality and medicine for the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine.
A published author, her most recent book offers empowerment for people with cancer: If Joan of Arc Had Cancer: Finding Courage, Faith and Healing from History’s Most Inspirational Woman Warrior (New World Library)