When we talk about negative or fear-based emotions that we have stuffed, we release stress. This stress reduction boosts the immune system’s functioning and increases both emotional and physical wellbeing. This is why talk therapy works.
Expressing emotion through art, dance, imaginative writing, storytelling, drama and music can be more effective than talk therapy because these are right-brained activities. Because of this, they give us more immediate access to our emotions. When we try to explain ourselves logically, rationally figure something out, or justify our behavior with words, we operate from our left brains.
Creative expression doesn’t only heal the mind;
it is a powerful tool for healing the body as well.
The Power of Image
For two decades researchers have found that visualizing healing images (auto suggestion) has a profound effect on the body. These effects include a strengthened immune system and lowered blood pressure and pulse rate. Researchers, including pioneer Carl Simonton, who worked with cancer patients, found that people who practiced visualization techniques showed marked improvement in physical well being.
When we see images in reality, through imagination, or through memory, the brain’s neurons send messages to the body in response to this stimulus. First the messages travel to the lower brain, which connects with the hypothalamus, a gland responsible for activating the parasympathetic branch autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system lowers our blood pressure, slows our breathing, and decreases our heart rate, releasing physical tension from our bodies.
Our imaging, or imagining, becomes an even more powerful force for healing when we put it into action by making art, writing, dancing, drumming, acting or any creative practice.
Creative activity causes our brain cells to release neurochemicals including endorphins. These neurochemicals reduce our sensation of pain and cause our immune systems to function better, improving our ability to respond to illness.
Neurochemicals also signal the body to send blood to area affected by the illness or injury. This blood provides both nutrients and immune cells, including T cells, killer cells that kill cancer cells and the AIDS virus.
The Relaxation Response
Endorphins and other neurochemicals that are released when we translate our images into action through drawing, writing, dancing, singing or painting put us in a deep level of concentration. When brain waves are measured in this altered state of consciousness, they look very similar to those produced by meditation. Meditation alone lowers heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Behavioral Medicine Clinic at Harvard University studied meditation as a treatment for heart disease and wrote about it in his book, The Relaxation Response.
Right now published reports of creative expression as a healing tool consist mainly of anecdotal evidence (stories about clients), but they have been convincing enough to spark a rapidly growing movement among many medical professionals to include the arts in treatment for illness and injury. Medical researchers have devised and are currently conducting more scientifically rigorous studies of the arts and healing.
The results are beginning to come about the benefits of writing as a healing tool. According to studies conducted at Southern Methodist University, Ohio State University, University of Texas at Austin, and North Dakota State University, writing stories about distressing events and the emotions they trigger:
- Reduces symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.
- Boosts immune system functioning including raising T cell counts
- Increases resistance to minor illnesses such as colds and flu
- Decreases symptoms of stress, including lowering blood pressure and heart rate
- Reduces the number of visits to the doctor and days missed from work
- Improves general physical health
As more research is completed, we will have a more precise understanding of exactly how creativity heals. In the meantime, there is no question that giving our images creative expression promotes healing of both mind and body.