Caring for our mental health is more essential than ever before. The way we treat our bodies, how and with whom we spend our time, and what thoughts take center stage in our minds are vital. In the monthly Shondaland series A Path to Well-Being, we’re sharing science and strategies to help you better understand and manage your well-being.

When attending medical school became particularly intense, Nancy Heavilin started knitting. “That was my outlet when I wanted to rip my hair out,” recalls the New Jersey-based pediatrician. “In hindsight, it was very meditative. The rhythmic movements and the repetitive nature of it was very soothing.”

Heavilin still turns to crafting to unwind, express herself, and create beautiful accessories, which she often gives as gifts to friends and colleagues. Her talents now also include hand-lettering and engraving on metal and glass. “It’s an important part,” she says, “of my self-care.”

Unleashing the Artist Within

Unleashing the Artist Within

Unleashing the Artist Within

$16 at Bookshop

Human beings are inherently creative. Studies show that making art or engaging in other creative practices is associated with reduced stress, improved mood, and greater overall well-being. Whether you play music, throw pottery, write stories, arrange flowers, or sew fabulous outfits, tapping into your creativity generates good feelings. And you don’t have to be totally skilled so long as you enjoy the process.

Using our imagination to innovate, solve problems, and express ourselves benefits well-being in multiple ways, says psychologist, creativity coach, and Unleashing the Artist Within author Eric Maisel. Creating can be restorative, expressive, a place of personal autonomy, a conduit for self-awareness, and a source of meaning and purpose, he says. Here’s how to tap into creative impulses to bring the benefits of self-expression into your life.

Seek something soothing

The meditative quality of many creative tasks — such as repetitive stitching while knitting, chopping ingredients for a recipe, or sanding wood for a carpentry project — inherently soothes the brain and body, which Maisel says “can be emotionally satisfying.” He notes that some therapists who treat sexual assault survivors have been known to knit between appointments as a way to relax and decompress from difficult conversations.

woman knitting
Many creative hobbies have a meditative quality.
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For Heavilin, after-hours creative endeavors provide a mental respite from difficult work demands. It’s calming as a space for freedom and play. “It’s just an outlet where there’s no expectation, and you’re creating something that wasn’t there before,” she says, “and even if it sucks, you still did it, and it’s gratifying that way.”

Heavilin also finds that it engages different parts of her brain. “I think it’s made me a better doctor,” she suggests. “In learning to pursue art, you learn to really look at things and consider them from different angles.”

Express yourself

Creativity is a way to share love, Maisel says, and love makes us feel good. His passion for books and reading is what inspired his desire to write. “Once you fall in love with something that deeply,” he says, “you want to re-create that in your own way, and you want to supply that love to somebody else.”

woman painting on easel
Judgement isn’t necessary for self-expression.
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Anyone can create out of love. No certification required. You don’t have to be a professional baker to make a dessert for a loved one’s birthday, for example, or a poet to pen meaningful words for a friend’s wedding.

Heavilin sends handmade greeting cards to friends to stay close. She also makes hats for her mountaineering husband, which she stitches with loving intentions. “When I make those, I think about him coming home safe and things going well,” she says. “I try to imbue the threads with my goodwill and good wishes.”

Establish control

Much in life is out of our immediate control: utility bills, climate change, political division, deadlines at work. But creative acts like composing a song, painting a piece of art, or mixing a signature spice blend put us squarely in the driver’s seat.

“It’s emotionally satisfying to be able to control something,” Maisel says. “If, in the rest of your life, there’s very little that you can control, you can at least sit down and put words on a page or put notes together in your own way. You can control that. It doesn’t mean that you’ll do a beautiful job, but at least it’s your job.”

woman kneading dough
Creativity can provide a sense of empowerment.
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That feeling of authority over your own creation can be empowering. And, again, it doesn’t have to lead to greatness to have an impact on your well-being. Taking photos of things you appreciate, even if they go no further than your smartphone, is still a creative act you wholly control that connects you to beauty.

Pursue purpose

For many, the drive to create runs deep. Writing, dancing, drawing, or cooking could be how you make sense of the world. “We often don’t know what we know until we create,” Maisel says, “so it’s a place of self-awareness and clarity. Self-awareness is one of the hallmarks of emotional well-being and mental health.”

Creativity can also be a profound source of meaning-making and purpose, regardless of its role in our professional lives. Mastering the ukulele or working with clay may be personally important for its own sake. If the act of creating feels like part of our life’s purpose, Maisel says, that’s “a big-deal mental health benefit.”

man working on a clay wheel
Expressing yourself can help you make sense of the world.
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Feeling like we’re living a life of purpose matters a great deal for well-being, Maisel notes. While creativity isn’t a life purpose for everyone, for those who consider it a priority, not being creative has psychological consequences. He says those who are disappointed with themselves can “enter into despair.”

Ultimately, an excellent outcome is not essential to get a well-being boost from the act of being artistic. “We can step to the side,” Maisel says, “and remember we’re living our life’s purpose. We seized a meaningful opportunity — whether it worked or not — and lived an intentional life.”

Sandy Cohen is a writer, health and wellness coach, and host of the Inner Peace to Go podcast. Follow her on Instagram @YouKnowSandy.

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