(Elizabeth, Diploma in Resilience Coaching Skills)
“Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate — is good for you” (Girija Kaimal)
Having initially selected another topic for my essay, a random Facebook scroll brought me to an organisation which runs online art classes. Suddenly, I got the urge to explore it further, signed up for a class the next day and decided to write about this experience instead.
I’ve always felt I had some creative bones in my body. I love art, interior design and photography but believed I couldn’t draw or paint. My early school art classes planted the seed for this belief. I remember the teacher telling us to draw and paint whatever we wanted and I felt totally stuck. As a child, you strive to master every new subject but not knowing or even being taught the basics of drawing and art, I grew up thinking I was useless. However, doing this class has completely transformed my view.
Beforehand, I was curious (how the class will be run), a bit hesitant (could I really paint a beautiful picture?) and excited (what a thrill to be doing something completely new). The goal is to create a painting of two fly agaric (new to me) mushrooms. The tutor is friendly and guides us through every line of our drawing like a very attentive Sherpa. Gradually, two little mushrooms begin to appear – and I can’t even draw! I’m impressed and pleased that I’ve stumbled across this opportunity – it’s a great class.
I use my mother’s brushes and watercolour paints, a small box with twelve colours. She was a keen amateur artist and I loved her artwork. She passed away peacefully in 2015 and as I begin painting, I feel connected to her in a different way, doing something she enjoyed for so long – how lovely to have this memory and present moment link. We learn about mixing colours and using brushes and water for different effects. From the very beginning, I’m completely focused and concentrated, it seems that time has stopped and all that is important is being in the moment with my paints, brushes and a very good teacher.
Midway through the class, I realise I don’t have red paint for the mushroom tops. Red is one of my favourite colours and my frantic search for it leaves me feeling annoyed with myself at not checking this beforehand and then frustrated because I can’t create the rich red colour. However, I quickly realise that my negative feelings are distracting me completely and I need to do something to avoid falling behind or ruining this lovely experience. I decide to create a deep orange instead and note down the correct colours to mix once I find the elusive red paint. Immediately, the frustration and annoyance disappear, I regain my calm and focus on the painting again.
Looking at the finished painting, I’m happy and amazed to have created something so pretty. Tidying up, I notice something stuck to the lid of my paint box and when I pull it off, I discover the missing block of red paint. I’m delighted and begin immediately mixing the colours to get the rich deep red, paint over the orange and finally I’ve got red topped mushrooms after all. Such a simple thing but I feel hugely satisfied and proud that in the end I’ve achieved what I set out to do.
Different colours trigger different feelings – red fills me with warmth and happiness, green is calming. While mixing the colours and applying the paint, I noticed I was already thinking how I could use the colours to paint other things – the deep blue was perfect for a clear sky. Research shows that painting can stimulate emotional growth as you release your emotions through your work and it empowers you to feel you have good ideas and can solve problems (Kaimal et al 2017). I agree, all the positive feelings lasted for days, fired up my motivation to tackle my “to do” list and I had a much better focus on priorities. Also, feeling more confident in my painting ability, totally new for me, I registered for two more classes.
Art therapy improves cognitive function, builds self-esteem and self-awareness, increases emotional resilience, promotes insight, improves social skills and reduces anxiety and distress. But what happens on a physical level when we engage ourselves in this way? Being creative increases blood flow to the reward pathways in the brain, lowers cortisol levels and promotes lower levels of interleukin-6, a marker of inflammation, all of which have a direct influence on health, well-being and life expectancy. Artists have significantly more grey matter in certain areas of the parietal lobe and showed improved “psychological resilience” as they were more able to cope with negative emotions and remain happy and functional during stressful life conditions.
Reflecting on this experience, I now understand how being creative can help build resilience. When you deliberately focus your attention on something so deeply, you became calm, self-aware and mindful: you let go of worries, don’t judge yourself or question your ability, are fully in the moment and are encouraged by feeling that you are doing well. Csikszentmihalyi (2008) proposes that when information that is compatible with our goals comes into our conscious awareness, our psychic energy flows effortlessly. Feeling positive about the experience in the moment provides instant valuable feedback which strengthens the self, boosts self-esteem, pride and a sense of achievement. Our attention is then freed up to deal with what we are doing rather than being distracted by negative thoughts. This is described as being in “flow” and we lose track of time. The interruption to my flow came when I noticed I had no red paint, perceived that it would stop me achieving my goal and paid attention to the corresponding negative thoughts and feelings about myself. Taking decisive action to calm the negative thoughts returned me to effortless flow.
I have learned so much from this experience which informs my coaching practice: the power of tapping into creativity to help reduce negative emotions, improve confidence and self-esteem and build resilience; challenging beliefs, no matter how small, can change your view of yourself; being more aware of the totally distracting nature of our negative thoughts, and how they can stop us from achieving our goals, helps us take the necessary action to focus more on what we want to achieve; being aware of my own thoughts in a coaching session and using deliberate focus on the client to return to being fully present with them. It’s never too late to get creative.
- American Art Therapy Association website
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper Collins Publishers.
- Diploma in Resilience Coaching Skills (Module 5).
- Dunphy, K., Baker, F. A., Dumaresq, E., Carroll-Haskins, K., Eickholt, J., Ercole, M., Kaimal, G., Meyer, K., Sajnani, N., Shamir, O. Y., & Wosch, T. (2019). Creative Arts Interventions to Address Depression in Older Adults: A Systematic Review of Outcomes, Processes, and Mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2655. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02655
- Kaimal G., Ayaz H., Herres J., Dieterich-Hartwell R., Makwanaa B., Kaiser D.H., Nasser J. A., (2017) Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawing. The Arts in Psychotherapy 55 (2017), 85-92
- Lange et al (2018), The Effect of Active Creation on Psychological Health: A Feasibility Study on (Therapeutic) Mechanisms, Behavioural Sciences 2018, 8, 25 ()