Contributing writer for Wake Up World
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver
For over a year, Jan had been traveling the dark road of chronic illness. Once fully of energy, she could barely make it home from work as a math teacher before collapsing into bed. All the life seemed to have drained out of her. She had been to numerous doctors, therapists and alternative health professionals without success. Then a friend gave her a beautifully decorated box for her 46th birthday with the instructions:
“Each morning, as soon as you wake, take one of these envelopes to a quiet place with a window onto nature, or a beautiful plant, or a candle. Sit comfortably and read the poem aloud to yourself, preferably more than once.”
This small — seemingly insignificant — daily ritual was a major turning point in Jan’s healing journey. The end result was life-changing.
The Healing Power of Art
Skeptical about poetry in general, but willing to give her friend’s gift a try, the first poem Jan opened was “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. She read out loud: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” and caught her breath. For many years, Jan had a conversation consistently running in the back of her mind about her lack of connection to religion and how her life had become so meaningless. When it really came down to it: what did she really hold sacred? Through this one poem, a seed had been planted within Jan that would soon grow into a great love of poetry — and healing.
Kim Rosen, author of Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, could relate to Jan’s story as she herself had struggled through dark times and began to heal through poetry. Suffering from suicidal depression, she stumbled upon a recording of David Whyte’s poems. The voice and words touched her so deeply — places she thought were untouchable — that she broke down and wept. She began to bring poems into her life — by learning them by heart, carrying some in her purse and posting many around the house. Some of her favorite “life poems” she printed onto small cards. “They became my “angel cards,” my therapy, my medicine, my prayers.”
“Like a shaman’s drum or a Sanskrit chant, the rhythm of a poem entrains your heartbeat, the phrasing changes your breathing, and the sounds resonate within the crystalline structures in your bones and fascia,” said Rosen. “Many years later I came to understand this as the poem’s “shamanic anatomy”: current scientific research shows that your brainwaves, breathing and pulse literally change when you give voice to a poem, opening your mind beyond ordinary thinking. The physical elements of the poem literally create the biochemical circumstances for healing and insight,” said Kim.
Poetry isn’t the only art form that encourages healing on a deep level. Other avenues include: drawing, painting, coloring and sculpting; dance or movement therapy; drama, which uses storytelling, acting and improvisation to foster expression and self-discovery; creative writing; music, either used passively through listening to alleviate depression and anxiety — or by actually playing and writing music.
Before you dismiss art therapy as a nice idea but a bit too idealistic, consider this: the healing capacity of creative expression is grounded in solid scientific research. A study published in Psycho-Oncology in 2006 found mindfulness-based art therapy for women diagnosed with cancer significantly reduced physical and emotional distress throughout treatment. Another study discovered that after only an hour of art therapy, adult cancer patients reported a strong reduction in symptoms, especially pain.
“People with cancer very often feel like their body has been taken over by the cancer. They feel overwhelmed,” said Joke Bradt, a music therapist from Drexel University in Philadelphia told Reuters. “To be able to engage in a creative process… that stands in a very stark contrast to sort of passively submitting oneself to cancer treatments.”
Craig Sawchuk, a clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. also believes in the power of art to transform health. Coloring books in particular operate on the same level as other mindfulness techniques like yoga and meditation. These practices work because they turn down the volume of the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the stress response. When we color, we experience a decrease in heart rate and respiration, our muscles loosen and the brain is stimulated. Coloring has a “grounding effect” according to Sawchuk, where we can amplify the benefits by increasing focus — “the gentle pressing of the crayon or pencil on the page, the texture of the paper across your hand, and the soft sounds of the coloring instrument moving back and forth in a rhythmic fashion.”
James Clear sums it up in Make More Art: The Health Benefits of Creativity:
“In our always–on, always–connected world of television, social media, and on–demand everything, it can be stupidly easy to spend your entire day consuming information and simply responding to all of the inputs that bombard your life.
Art offers an outlet and a release from all of that. Take a minute to ignore all of the incoming signals and create an outgoing one instead. Produce something. Express yourself in some way. As long as you contribute rather than consume, anything you do can be a work of art.”
About the author:
I’m Carolanne Wright — a writer, chef, traveler and enthusiastic advocate for sustainability, organics and joyful living. It’s good to have you here. If you would like to learn more, connect with me at Thrive-Living.net or visit Twitter.com/Thrive_Living.
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