To get right to the heart of how the creative process can have physiological effect on the body – and therefore promote healing – let’s begin with the electric control center of our bodies, responsible for communication, transmission, sensation, interpretation and response – The Nervous System.
No system acts alone, but by coming in for a closer look with this one, we can start to see the steps between Art and Healing more clearly.
The take home point, if you leave with nothing else, is that engaging in Creative Expression (as creator or audience) reduces Stress response. This is big enough to take very seriously. This is also already well-documented, although unfortunately not at the top of our preventative healthcare plans… yet.
Let’s dip in a bit and explore some nutshell connections on how this works.
Within our nervous system are several branches, two of those being the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.
In our modern world, it is becoming more and more acknowledged – and, well, obvious – that most people are moving through their day to day in a state of perpetual stress, overwhelm and/or anxiety. It’s one thing after another, constant stimulus and taxing demands – with little downtime.
This has most of us operating dominantly from the Sympathetic nervous system most of the time. (It’s good to understand that both of these systems are constantly at work for us – what changes is who is running the big picture in given situations).
The sympathetic nervous system has very specific effect on the body. To name just a few: increasing heart rate and blood pressure, mobilization, and direct affect on the adrenals with the release of adrenaline into our system (along with various other get-up-and-go hormones). While it does play a role throughout the organs of our bodies, it focuses on directing energy on peripheral mobilization and doing.
Think Fight-or-Flight, right? To do this, things like digestion get slowed down, as well as our urge for elimination. When we need to run, we don’t want to have to worry about stopping to relieve our bladder. This is a quick functioning, high energy-burning system.
Now, the parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is nature’s complement to this – it is our system for rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. This is the system responsible for the nurturing and filtering work of digestion and elimination – so it is very important for the optimal functioning of our internal environments – from cells to whole body.
This is also the system responsible for Healing. Our cells were made to tidy up, fix, filter, cleanse, clean-up, discern, multiply and thrive. Our bodies know how to heal – they are constantly getting rid of cancer cells all the time in a body that is healthy for all general purposes. They do so best when given the optimal conditions with which to do so – ie. less stress and stimulus. This is why we do most of our cellular healing in our sleep – because, in sleep, our mind and senses take a break, parasympathetic control takes over and there aren’t any distractions from the process of healing.
Not so complicated when you think about it: A state of stress is not an optimal state for healing. We hear about this all the time. Yet, so many of us still don’t make stress reduction the Number One priority for preventative care and holistic well-being.
Let me spin this another way to really get across how Art plays a role in all of this.
You’ve probably heard of the different types of brain waves, or at least some of them.
Beta waves, for instance, are what we generally move through our waking day in – and yep, you guessed it, it’s related to stress. This is the fastest brain wave frequency, and associated with work, concentration, and all things stress-related.
When we engage in creative activities – such as painting, art journaling, making music, writing, dancing, etc. – and shift into states of creative flow and spontaneity, we move into a slower brain wave frequency known as Alpha waves. Alpha waves are associated with creativity and insight, calmness and a sense of effortlessness or joy. This is the creative zone or flow.
This transition is likened to what happens in meditation, which has also been studied well. As we dip into this creative flow, our parasympathetic nervous system takes the reigns… our whole body rests from the work of sympathetic response and being “on-guard”, and our cells begin to thoroughly digest and deliver nutrients, release toxins from the body, and do their innate healing work within.
When we are in Creative Flow, our body is literally in a mirrored state of flow throughout. Healing only occurs in an environment that nurtures the natural exchange process with open flow – literally and figuratively.
You’ve probably also heard of Theta waves, which are the next slowest waves, and also in a resting parasympathetic rhythm. This is the brain pattern that is directly linked to shamanic work, deeper meditation, and spontaneous ideas or a-ha moments where solutions seem to just drop into your lap from nowhere. This is the state you are most likely in when you receive direction or ideas in the middle of the night, or just before waking.
Studies indicate that in moments of intense creativity, we have actually dipped into the mysterious insight of consciousness that comes with theta patterns.
It is the theta frequency that brings us into contact with deep, rich memory and the associations (forming wisdom!) that can only be made from our unique set of experiences. Through this connectivity we are better equipped to find meaning and shift our thinking from ways that do not serve to perspective that enhances our vitality and ability to navigate & thrive in our lives.
There are various studies looking into how to enhance creative progress by patterning ourselves into theta states with conditioned triggers – read an interesting take on that from an older study HERE.
In general, the key to consciously engaging these wave patterns into slower rhythms begins by beginning your creative expression. Just start writing, moving color, moving your body to the beat. This is a surefire way to move out of thinking, beta mode, and into deeper frequencies that will actually shift your body and mind into a parasympathetic state, relieved from stress and able to fully activate the bodies healing capabilities.
Creativity is an activity of movement and flow at its very core. When you participate in this flow by altering your attention, attitude and what you do with your body, you alter brain frequency, shifting from stress response to relaxation (and in doing so, also alters our hormones, which effects all of this as well!).
Phew! There is so much rich beauty to this, but let’s come back to where we began:
A creative practice reduces time spent in stress mode!
This is a win-win, my friends – because being in the flow is FUN, too!
Stress reduction enhances all functions of the body and promotes vitality and our innate ability to heal. Less stress means decreased likelihood of the big nasty dis-eases out there (or decreased chances of exacerbations of those diseases), increased ability to cope with unexpected stressors that arise (due to less overall fatigue and better resiliency), a greater sense of meaning and well-being emotionally and mentally, and more sense of fulfillment, confidence and wholeness. To name a few.
You know what else? A creative practice also increases creativity – in all facets of life – which creates patterns and pathways of getting into the flow that are easier to access the more you do it. So the more you do it, the better you get at organically shifting your body into stress-reduced healing states of being. Makes sense, right?
So, what art will you make today? What act of creative expression will you let yourself get lost in?
Don’t worry about the “art” thing of it, just do it for fun!
But if you need a why, like I do sometimes, do it for your sense of health and well-being, knowing that the benefit has nothing to do with how it is interpreted once it’s done – and everything to do with the waves of the process.
Make a game of it – See if you notice a shift in your level of perceived relaxation from before to after. Practice shifting your attention from thinking to spontaneous expressing.
If your mind tries to control or stress you out about something during the process – remember this rule: Just Keep Moving. Movement keeps us out of thinking mode.
Begin by beginning.
Practice by practicing.
* This post is part of a daily celebration of Arts & Health month right here at Hali Karla Arts. Be sure to stop back for inspiration, giveaways, more fun info about art and healing, and special announcements and offers. Or you can sign up for my mailing list, for occasional updates and exclusive offers.