The hidden power of creativity
Guest author: Tessa Thulien, LPC
The Need for Creative Expression
I’m a busy professional. I serve students and clients as a coach and psychotherapist. Creative expression is crucial to my personal well-being and a powerful tool for burnout prevention and healing, but it’s often under appreciated.
As professionals we are often wired to pay attention to everyone and everything but ourselves. We have all heard the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask before putting a mask on others. During the pandemic, an increasing number of people are recognizing the importance of taking time for their well-being. Yet, we may still have this guilt about taking time for ourselves to be creative. Guilt is activated when we perceive ourselves to be overly self-centered and not as concerned as we ought to be with the feelings or interests of others . I think of the expression I often heard growing up: “Make yourself useful.”
Often, creativity does not feel “useful”. We may be conditioned by society to find our worth in what we do, what we produce and how we can provide service to others. When we practice creative activities, it may feel like we’re being frivolous or dabbling in childish pursuits. When we make art that isn’t to sell or practice a dance routine without a theater, our efforts don’t line up with society’s typical markers of success like money, fame, or career. For parents, it can be seen as taking unnecessary time away from the family. However, when we make time for creative expression, we are tapping into one of the most transformative ways of caring for ourselves and increasing our capacity to serve others.
Creativity brings a surprising number of benefits
Those of us who engage in artistic expression often recognize its beneficial qualities. Scientists are taking notice, studying how creativity impacts well-being using a range of methods from qualitative surveys to advanced brain imaging. The evidence is remarkable. Art and creativity have been shown to have measurable benefits on a wide range of well-being measures, including stress, focus, heart rate and even our sense of self.
One of creativity’s researched-backed impacts is on stress reduction . While many studies have shown self-reported reductions in feelings of stress , art has also been shown to lower cortisol levels. For example, researchers at Drexel University have found that 75 percent of the participants in their study lowered their cortisol level, with just 45 minutes of making art! 
Creative activities can also increase focus and attention, useful benefits for a work setting . One study found that spending 45 minutes making art boosts someone’s confidence and ability to complete tasks .
Art is even good for your heart! Creating art has been shown to improve heart rate variability (HRV), a marker for how well we can adapt to changes in both our brain activity and the environment and a consistently low HRV increases the risk of developing future heart disease .
For many, creativity offers something that goes beyond the physical heart. Thomas Merton, monk and poet stated, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Creating art can teach us who we are and remind us of what is truly important. It can teach us to value ourselves for our own inherent worth. Susan Magsamen, author of Your Brain on Art and pioneer of the field of neuroaesthetics, says “Research now makes clear that experiencing or creating art sparks a dynamic interplay among brain cells that spearheads billions of changes affecting our thoughts, emotions, and actions. This knowledge elevates the arts to a superpower in its potential for healing and empowerment. Indeed, if we were to design a tool from scratch to improve learning, health, and overall well-being, it would look like the arts.” 
“Research now makes clear that experiencing or creating art sparks a dynamic interplay among brain cells that spearheads billions of changes affecting our thoughts, emotions, and actions. This knowledge elevates the arts to a superpower in its potential for healing and empowerment. Indeed, if we were to design a tool from scratch to improve learning, health, and overall well-being, it would look like the arts.” -Susan Magsamen, Your Brain on Art
I turned to the science of the brain to know how to improve the state of my own wellbeing. After losing my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, and a close friend over a short period of three years, grief became overwhelming. I relate to Frida Kahlo when she said, “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to.” Writing and drawing became almost as necessary to me as breathing. In order to maintain my sense of self, my wellbeing, and to heal, art was truly the only expression that provided any lasting relief during my recovery. Creativity reconnected me to what was truly important; nurturing and healing myself.
What’s happening in our brains while we’re experiencing these benefits? As a clinician, I already had some background in stress and neuroscience, and my desire to unpack this topic drove me to learn about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. My hope is for this article to inspire you to understand the science behind why taking time for creative expression is essential for well-being.
Why creativity is good for you: a quick look at the science of the brain
What does science say about creativity and how it enhances our wellbeing? Here are two highlights from what researchers have uncovered so far:
Creativity helps the brain grow and heal
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired. Neurogenesis is the even more amazing ability of the brain to grow new neurons. New pathways and new neurons enhance a wide range of cognitive activities from memory to learning and allows the brain to heal.
Creative activities as diverse as learning a musical instrument, dance and visual arts have all been shown to increase the brain’s neural connectivity and often have associated benefits from building new neural networks to increased memory, empathy, attention and focus. Some, such as dancing, have even been shown to reduce the risk of serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s.  My search for what enhances neuroplasticity began and led me to discover that many of the activities that I once took as simple leisure or enjoyment could truly enhance my healing. I could rewire my brain and find a sense of calm and peace again.
Creativity releases feel-good brain chemicals
Creating and experiencing art actually changes our brain chemistry ! Our reward centers light up in our brain when we are creating and beholding the art of others, releasing feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Some people specifically experience these same rewards after “aha!” moments of creative insight . This neural reward sometimes leads people to forgo other necessary activities, as anyone who’s ever stayed up too late working on a creative project can attest.
Tips for bringing the benefits of creativity into your own life
Across all of these different areas of research, creative expression is key to building a resilient brain and body. Now that you’ve learned about the nitty gritty details of what creativity can do for the brain, we’ll end with two tips for making the most of creativity in your life: consistency and community.
Build a creative habit
Creating a consistent habit of practicing your favorite creative activities regularly can grow the impact of creativity in your life. For example, one study found evidence that consistent creativity does make a difference in how we feel. Those who engaged in 100 hours or more a year (two or more hours per week) reported significantly better mental well-being .
Find a community or group to belong
Creativity, connection, and community are all built when groups of creatives congregate and create! Even medical professionals are prescribing art to those who are struggling with loneliness and negative feelings. A multitude of studies show that these activities, especially in groups, have proven to be incredibly effective at improving wellbeing and increasing a sense of belonging . Experiencing the art of others (as you may in a class) enhances empathy, enhancing human connection and wellbeing, including personal identity, sense of meaning, imagination, and creativity .
About the Author
Tessa Thulien is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Coach and Creative. Her first love is poetry and few things bring her more joy than to witness creative expression and how it transforms lives.