If you are a friend or relative of a loved one with mental illness, you too suffer the effects of the disorder. Burn out, compassion fatigue, hopelessness and feelings of powerlessness can go hand in hand while accompanying someone on their journey of recovery. As much as the struggle is theirs; it’s yours as well. You, as a personal caregiver are equally if not more vulnerable to burnout as those who are in the helping professions. Caregiver burnout: not just a sporadic weekend of feeling overwhelmed and overtired, but an unrelenting fatigue and emotional exhaustion which forces hundreds of people to take extended periods of time off work. Preventing this emotional and physical collapse is essential in order to remain effective in helping your loved one and saving your own sanity (literally).

A myriad of self-help books sit on today’s store shelves offering endless suggestions on how to tame stress and avert going head to head with the ‘burn-out boogey man’. One of the most innovative solutions is creativity. A few trailblazers in the field of psychology and body/mind medicine have discovered its rich benefits and widely encourage its application.

But I’m not creative! I can’t paint or write or sing.

Create: (v.) To cause to come into being. (Webster’s Universal College Dictionary)

A healthy life is a creative life. But what exactly do I mean by ‘creative’? To many of us, creativity is reserved for the artistically gifted and refers to skill and talent.

In reality, to live a creative life means to engage in a way of being that involves including activities in your life that you truly cherish which allow a sense of adventure and newness to emerge. The coveted activity can take the form of almost anything. If it’s new, it’s creative.

“It is not virtuosity…it is the love of something, having so much love for something – that all that can be done with the overflow is to create” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., author of Women Who Run With The Wolves)

I call it ‘casual creativity’. ‘Casual creativity’ is not about skill or talent, quality or quantity. It’s about engaging in meaningful expression.

Perhaps it’s tinkering with a carburetor; walking in a new area rather than your tried and true route. Maybe it’s joining a community choir; learning Spanish; or simply smelling the fresh earth while you garden. As long as it has personal significance, the activity holds a wealth of healthy benefits.

Healing Effects of Creativity

“Creative ability is our most valuable asset, for it gives outwardly and it feeds inwardly at every level: psychic, spiritual mental, emotive and economic.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., author of Women Who Run With The Wolves

The more we feed our soul, the more we can feed others. Bernie Siegel, M.D. and author of Love, Medicine and Miracles, issues ‘creativity prescriptions’ to his patients. “Every single day it is critical that (we) create something,”1 he emphasizes. The very act of creating something, anything, is healing.

How Does Creativity Work?

In Dr. Lissa Rankin’s book, Mind Over Medicine, she cites scientific research illustrating “creative expression releases endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters, reduces depression and anxiety, improves your immune function, relieves physical pain ,and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering your heart rate, decreasing your blood pressure, slowing down your breathing, and lowering cortisol.” More or less, studies show creative expression elicits change in every cell. It creates what Dr. Michael Samuels, M.D., author of Creative Healing calls, “a healing physiology”2. It shifts our body/mind from a state of unhealthy stress to a state of “profound relaxation.” Dr. Rankin points out “The body can only repair itself when the body is in a state of physiological rest.”3 Therefore, creativity is the perfect medium to enhance healing.
A combination of audio/visual/ and motor skills has stronger positive influence than using any in isolation. Painting while actually observing a flower filled garden with a favourite musical piece playing in the background has a more powerful healing effect than just listening to music alone.

How Can Caregivers Benefit?

Creative expression is meditative in nature, inviting us to quiet and reflect upon our own needs. Something caregivers habitually forget to do. The very act asks us to put aside time for ourselves, in turn giving us a break from the stresses of the outside world and inviting us to regain balance.

Walking in a park or fixing the toaster shifts our focus, albeit temporarily, from the heaviness of life to the something more manageable and often more beautiful. It primes the ground for shifts in self and global perception to take place, fostering hope and optimism. Indispensable traits for family members of someone with a mental illness. Additional results include increased physical stamina, emotional stability and the power to face adversity with confidence. These too are crucial qualities that enhance resilience and effectiveness, and prevent potentially incapacitating burnout.

Just Do It!

It matters little if the chosen act of creativity is a stolen ten minutes of journaling or doodling or an entire afternoon put aside for sketching. What is important is that we carve out some time, any time, to do what brings us joy and comfort. It is this deep conversation with ourselves, this honoring and harvesting of what comes from within, that is so profoundly preventive and healing in nature.

“Imagination is more important that knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

(Disclaimer: Creativity alone is not nor should be considered a ‘cure all’. However, it can be a potent addition to a personal preventative healthcare kit.)


1. Love, Medicine & Miracles – Dr. Bernie Seigel (http://www.amazon.ca/Love-Medicine-Miracles-Bernie-Siegel/dp/0060… )
2. Creative Healing – Dr. Michael Samuels (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uca2bnxlXJU )
3. Mind Over Medicine by Dr. Lissa Rankin (http://mindovermedicinebook.com/read-the-book/ )

© 2014 Victoria Maxwell

by Victoria Maxwell


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