What’s art therapy?
Let’s begin by talking about what art therapy—Christina’s specialization—is. Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art as a form of expression. It has a lot of the elements of talking therapy, but also uses all types of art: painting, drawing, photography, writing, etc. to help us express ourselves.
A common misconception about art therapy is that you need to be good at art, but you really don’t have to! In fact, it’s better if you aren’t as good, because then you have fewer filters during the creative process. The goal is not to create pretty art, it’s to express yourself. The process is more important than the final product.
Art is not a diagnosis tool, though. If someone tells you they can figure out a lot about you just from your art, it’s suspicious. That’s rarely the case. Art can have a a loooot of different meanings, so you can’t assume what someone is going through based on what they drew in art therapy. For example, if someone draws a dinosaur, there are many assumptions one can make: they could be dealing with something big and heavy, feelings of loss, climate grief, your favorite childhood toy, or something more mundane like Jurassic Park being their favorite movie, or just liking dinosaurs!
Why does being creative help?
What effects can creativity have on your mental health? The human brain is a big mystery, but we do know that it’s capable of changing. During childhood, our brains change more quickly, and that’s why our experiences as children are formative. Our brains, however, continue to change throughout life, and this is the reason we can heal—healing is change.
Creativity can greatly help the healing process:
- Memory and problem-solving: Creating boosts the brain, improves memory and problem-solving skills, and encourages more creativity.
- Processing emotions: Creativity also activates the part of the brain that deals with emotions, which is great to help express and process them.
- Self-esteem and control: It improves self-esteem and gives you a sense of control. Some activities can also help to let go of control if that’s something you struggle with. An example of one such activity is watercolor painting: no matter how precise you are, there is always an element you can’t control, the water.
- Neuroplasticity: Creativity is also linked to playing, and playing is something that leads to neuroplasticity. That’s why playing is very important as an adult as well!
- Connection with others: The creative process can also give a sense of purpose and help connect with others by creating together, or sharing your art or interest in that artistic activity!
Writing and worldbuilding in mental health
Writing and worldbuilding can be helpful with mental health too, because they let you control an entire world of your making.
- Decision-making skills: Especially for people who have had experiences where they felt helpless, or for people who struggle to make decisions (since worldbuilding and writing are constant decision-making), worldbuilding and writing can be very empowering.
- Narrative control: When worldbuilding, you create the world you want to see. It’s why there are so many queer-focused worlds with little to no LGBTIphobia—it’s a case of the author “fixing things”. You control the narrative, the story, and what that means.
- Empathy: You also get to research a lot of things, like cultures, history, and the worldview of other people. So you become more empathetic and sensitive.
Playing RPGs for mental health
Playing RPGs can also help a lot with your mental health! Here are some examples:
- Flexibility and empathy: RPGs are linked to cognitive flexibility, the ability to adjust your brain to new situations, and improved empathy because you have to understand the character you’re playing.
- Know yourself better: You get to play in a safe context, experiment with interpersonal relations, and explore parts of yourself. It’s very interesting to think about what sorts of characters you like to play, as it can tell you a lot about yourself and your needs.
- For example, Christina doesn’t like playing a healer because, as a therapist in real life, healing is her job, so she doesn’t want to bring that into the game. Another example, Janet doesn’t like magic-based characters because choosing spells feels like paperwork and she already does a lot of that every day.
- It’s a safe environment: The experience feels real, but at the same time, we can separate it from reality. So we get to take away the positive stuff that happens and leave behind the negative stuff when our characters hit a low point.
How can we stop our mental health from interfering with our creativity?
Disclaimer: this is not therapy! If you struggle with any of this, visit a therapist.
Let’s talk about some helpful tips and things to keep in mind if you feel like your mental health is in the way of your creativity. Very often therapists talk about changing your inner monologue. Sometimes the monologue is helpful, sometimes it isn’t—but thanks to neuroplasticity, you can change it! These inner voices often come from our environment: parents, friends, teachers, etc. To change it, challenge your assumptions. As soon as the inner voice starts going against yourself, object to it, challenge it—it can seem difficult but it gets easier! Then, ask yourself where the voice comes from. Is it you, or is it someone else?
Impostor syndrome: smash those brain goblins!
In the case of Impostor Syndrome, ask yourself, “who says I’m not good enough?” At the end of the day, you are the only one who can create what you can create, so notice your uniqueness! Journaling is something that can help because it makes you know yourself better and find what’s unique about you. Be aware of your creative process, and ask yourself what you did to deserve the achievement and praise. If your first reaction is “I got lucky”, challenge that. Before going to sleep, ask yourself “What did I do today that I’m proud of?” Remember that other people aren’t necessarily better. When we compare ourselves with other people, the comparisons are always biased (for example, by comparing some aspects only). Which brings us to…
Competitiveness: don’t compare yourself!
If you’re dealing with feelings of competitiveness and jealousy, ask yourself “why am I comparing myself with them?” Get to the bottom of the question and you’ll realize the comparison is absurd. Set your own goals and follow them, praise yourself, and give yourself stickers (or any other “rewards” that work for you). If you ever want to feel good about yourself, look at your old work to see how far you’ve come.
Perfectionism: the enemy of good
Another common obstacle creatives tend to face is perfectionism—but bad news: you’re not perfect. Good news: no one else is! This might be obvious, but we tend to forget it. Perfectionism often stems from associating performance with our worth: it’s the idea that if our work isn’t perfect, there’s something wrong with us (a lot of the time, this is a subconscious reaction). We fear the negative outcome, but we need to separate our work from our worth—failing is never fun, but it can be ok! You will still be ok even if you fail, so accept that you are valuable because you are you.
Practical things to heal your inner voice
Here are some practical things you can apply to your everyday life, in order to help heal your inner voice.
- Fill your brain with nice stuff: listen to podcasts or read books by mental health professionals. Different things work for different people, so you might not like the first ones you try. Here are some resources:
- Doctor Nicole LePera: she has a good Twitter account, as well as several books. Christina recommends How to Do the Work.
- Brené Brown: she has TED Talks and books, and Christina recommends Atlas of the Heart.
- Psychology in Seattle podcast: they’re also on YouTube, hosted by Doctor Honda.
- Doctor K from Healthy Gamer: it’s a very prolific YouTube channel.
- Doctor Faith G. Harper: Christina recommends her book Unfuck your brain (only if you don’t mind swearing in therapy books).
- Meditation apps—see if they work for you!
- Talk to yourself. Talking and putting things into words is really important! That’s why therapy works, after all. You can even write down things you want to say to yourself and then say them out loud.
- Writing! Some options are journaling, writing letters to yourself, or writing a dialogue scene between versions of yourself. Just make sure to write it for you, so you can be as raw and authentic as possible.
Listen to the full interview!
Want to learn more about the effects of worldbuilding and creativity on your mental health? Check out the full interview on YouTube and Spotify!
Who is Christina Christidou?
Christina Christidou is an art therapist and artist. She studied theater in Thessaloniki, specializing in stage costume design and has an MA in art therapy from the University of Derby and a certificate in sand play therapy. She also works as a freelance illustrator, graphic designer and photo editor for over 10 years. Past projects include book covers, children’s books illustrations, CD art, posters and other promotional material. Check out her website and linktree!
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