Guest Blog: How art and craft helped my mental health by Lynne Miles

Lynne is a dear friend whom I know from “another life,” when we grew up in Southern Africa. Through Facebook, we reconnected and have discovered we have more in common now than ever before. Lynne has agreed to write a guest blog for me, and I am very grateful.

I have enjoyed undertaking various forms of craft for many years and know that it takes me to my “happy place.” What I did not realize, until more recently, was the therapeutic value of undertaking creative pursuits – or, indeed, how much I would need to value the benefit of craft for my own well-being.

About 7 or 8 years ago, after an intense period of work stress, long hours, and other life changes I started “malfunctioning.” I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue and began a long journey of learning how to rest. The fatigue associated with adrenal fatigue cannot be “pushed through.” I had to stop, but for an active person like me, it was very hard!

My adrenal fatigue did slowly get better (they also discovered I had been suffering from hyperthyroidism and successful surgery eliminated that problem). However since then every time I felt pressured or stressed the symptoms of fatigue would return, or I would feel like I was coming down with a cold, and sometimes I would just feel so overwhelmed I would want to hide! As a people loving person, this was very strange for me. I was tested for adrenal fatigue (negative), hyperparathyroidism (negative), hormonal levels (still only perimenopausal) and even depression (some markers but nothing conclusive).

That eventually lead me to consult a wonderful Clinical Psychologist, Rochelle Masters, who worked with me and eventually gave a diagnosis of Somatoform Symptom Distress Disorder. Simply explained, stress triggers my brain to send out instructions to my body which displays real symptoms of illness but without the presence of the physical malfunctions that would usually result in those symptoms.

So I am now on a very long journey learning how to manage this condition and slowly train my brain to respond correctly. An early strategy was to learn “mindfulness” – “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” I did try working with a great app called “Headspace” which takes you through guided mindfulness activities. The starting ones that I tried involved sitting quietly and becoming aware of everything around you right where you were: your breathing, the noises you could hear, the colors and shapes you could see in the things around you and so on. I confess that I didn’t get very far and I was amazed at how HARD it was to do for just 10 minutes!! I needed something to focus on in order to stop my mind galloping around and just sitting wasn’t working for me!

That is where Zentangle or doodling came in for me. I told my Psychologist about it and how I didn’t notice time going by when I was drawing and that I felt really relaxed when I did it. She was intrigued and did some research. Turns out Zentangle is a known mindfulness activity!

I have since read an article by the psychologist, Gloria Martinez Ayala, who was talking about coloring and stated: “When coloring, we activate different areas of our two cerebral hemispheres. The action involves both logic, by which we color forms, and creativity when mixing and matching colors. This incorporates the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and fine motor skills [coordination necessary to make small, precise movements]. The relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress.”

It has been my experience that all forms of craft have the same effect as they all involve some form of logic in the design of what we are doing, and of course the vision and fine motor skills we use as we create. I still dabble with crochet and cross-stitch, occasionally some beadwork, and even do a little coloring from time to time. My primary creativity at the moment though, centers around doodle drawing (zentangle) and papercraft. In each of these I am able to fully focus on the moment and time “ceases to exist” for a little while enabling me to switch off and give my mind and emotions a rest. I always feel more relaxed and alert, calm and energized after spending time at my craft table. Even my husband recognizes the signs when my brain is not coping with life around me and gently suggest I sit and craft a while – it has a recognizable effect!

Since including my craft activities as a firm strategy to help me relax and be ready to face the world, rather than something that previously was a “nice to do if I get time”, I have been able to cope with the work activities I have had to pick up again and slowly start involving myself with people outside my family group.

Creativity takes many forms – for me, it is these crafty pursuits, for my mum, it is spending a day creating in the kitchen, for others it is gardening or singing. I would strongly encourage everyone who struggles with stress, depression or any other form of mental illness to try creativity as a coping strategy. Find your particular creative fit and manage your mental health – you will be so glad you did – I am!

  Lynne and Terry, her man for a lifetime

#depression, #creativity, #mindfulness

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