Create a healthy you; meet a woman whose creative calling improved her health. And discover how you can tap creativity’s healing power

Create a healthy you; meet a woman whose creative calling improved her health. And discover how you can tap creativity’s healing power

Kathryn Perrotti Leavitt

THREE AND A half years ago, Barb Kobe, a 53-year-old married mother of two from Crystal, Minn., began to experience pain in her left hip. At first the pain was sporadic enough to ignore. But a year later when it worsened, Kobe reluctantly went to see an orthopedist. The diagnosis: early arthritis and a hip joint abnormality. Without surgery, she would need daily medication and eventually would require a cane.

Kobe’s first response was denial. “I didn’t want to think this was possible,” she says.

Although hip replacement surgery has a high success rate, its invasiveness concerned Kobe. She refused surgery and instead turned to alternative therapies, like acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage, for relief. She also began to focus more keenly on her favorite creative outlet: making dolls out of materials like sticks, yarn, beads, and herbs. Ten years earlier, she had begun making puppets that she used to help her children, then 3 and 5, understand different emotions. Puppet making evolved into doll making to help her deal with her own emotions. Since 1994, she had created more than 200 dolls. Now she found that her hobby helped her cope with the nearly constant pain she felt in her hip. “Doll making was my sanity,” she says. “It took my focus away from the pain and put it on my creations.”

Kobe had stumbled upon the healing power of creativity, which an increasing number of holistic practitioners recommend to their patients. But Kobe’s journey wasn’t over.

How Creativity Heals

Kobe’s pain persisted. When her leg began to give out a year later, she consulted a renowned hip specialist in Minneapolis, who concurred with the original diagnosis and recommended surgery. Out of options, Kobe reluctantly scheduled her operation for December 2000.

Then a surprising thing happened. A few days after scheduling her surgery, Kobe, still apprehensive about her decision, began constructing another doll. She fashioned a 20-inch-long figure out of sticks from her backyard and painted it green. She designed a crimson cotton dress for it and topped the head with a halo of dill weed and a crown of deep red raffia hair. Then she fastened a small bunch of lavender, a healing herb, over the doll’s heart. When the figure was complete, Kobe held it up and noticed that its left hip jutted out. Almost immediately Kobe felt relief flood over her and the anguish over her own hip fade away. The physical pain was still there, but she felt at complete ease with her decision to have the hip surgery.

“It was like a wake-up call,” says Kobe. “I was finally able to face my hip problem and I could let go of the stress. I realized that denying the pain had caused the most suffering.” In fact, she felt so reassured that she moved her surgery up a month.

That doll making helped her deal with her physical pain is not as far-fetched as it sounds, say leading creativity experts. The relationship between art and healing has been around forever, says Shaun McNiff, Ph.D., provost of Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., and a founder of art therapy, which incorporates art and psychotherapy. That said, understanding how creativity heals involves a lot of guesswork.

Some say that simply having fun doing a creative project brings about healing. Others, including Kobe, say that creativity improves health by providing spiritual comfort. For Kobe, her dolls represent a support system that helps reaffirm difficult decisions she must make, like the one to have surgery. Most creativity experts do agree that expressing yourself creatively releases emotions, which aids physical healing. And it does this in a way that talking about your emotions cannot. Talking about yourself only accesses the logical side of your brain, not your creative side, says McNiff. “[Creativity] does something that words can’t do, and people report that it’s more powerful.”

Creative expression also relieves stress. When your body is stressed, it evokes what’s called the fight or flight response, which releases hormones that increase blood pressure, breathing rate, metabolism, and muscle tension. These hormones also suppress your immune system, which can lead to health problems and aggravate pain.

But doing creative projects can break that stress cycle, says Herbert Benson, M.D., founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a leading expert on the healing connection between the mind and the body. “Creativity is associated with a quiet state of mind, which is the opposite of the fight or flight response,” he explains. Studies have shown that this quiet and focused state of mind can reduce pain and bolster the immune system. In Kobe’s case, she knew she felt more relaxed when she made dolls. And being relaxed took her focus away from the pain in her hip.

Finding a Creative Outlet

If you want to reap the same rewards of creativity, know that you don’t have to be artistic. “Our society sets up art with a capital A, but so much more [than traditional forms of art] can be creative,” says Barbara Sarah, a breast cancer survivor and coordinator of the Oncology Support Program at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, N.Y. Everyone can be creative, say experts. Kobe loved to make dolls. But simply learning to see and appreciate colors more fully can be creative. If you like to work with your hands, try gardening or flower arranging. If you like to talk, you might try storytelling or writing. If you love to eat, find ways to spice up your cooking routine.

On a more basic level, creativity is about keeping an open mind and trying new things, say most experts. Being open-minded is a concept that we can apply to everything we do, from getting dressed in the morning to communicating with co-workers to planning parties. Gerard Puccio, Ph.D., director and associate professor of the Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, N.Y., defines creativity from a problem-solving perspective. You need to get creative to manage difficult situations in new ways, he says. For instance, if you face a challenge at work, creative thinking can help you to find a viable solution quickly. Even a decision as simple as choosing an alternate route home to avoid a traffic jam requires a degree of creativity.

Even if you know exactly how you want to express yourself, finding time to nurture your creativity can be difficult, says Joyce Slochower, Ph.D. professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York City. Barbara Ganim an expressive arts therapist and director of the Expressive Arts Institute at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., agrees. Creativity can be spontaneous, but life often gets too busy for us to find the time we need to reconnect with our inner self. Ganim suggests setting aside a place to work on a creative activity–whether it’s your workshop, your garden, or a hiking trail–and making time to get there every day. Kobe relies on ritual to put her in the mood. For years she got her creative juices flowing each morning with a pot of tea, lighted candles, and 20 minutes of journal writing or meditation. “[Ritual] is the button that turns it on. There’s a shift that says, I’m choosing to do this now,” says Kobe.

McNiff says that you need to commit to being creative in the same way that you need to commit to following a physical fitness routine. He says that being creative can get endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers, going in the same way exercise does, and that once you get into the routine, you begin to crave that endorphin rush much the way you might crave the way exercising makes you feel.

Above all, avoid judging yourself or worrying about what others think of your self-expression, says Ganim. Set out to create something because you want to, not to please someone else. Kobe agrees. Too many people get hung up on what their creations should look like and simply can’t continue when critical feelings set in, she says.

Kobe’s own experience with her hip showed her the important role creativity plays in her health. Her surgery turned out to be a success and was followed by six weeks of rehabilitation. To help manage her pain during recovery, she made 20 more dolls. Kobe believes she began to heal the day she made the red-haired doll with the protruding hip, but the making of each one during her recovery helped speed her healing process. “I treasure my creativity as a resource and a tool,” she says. “If you were to take my creative energies out of my life, I don’t know what I would do.”

Ignite Your Creative Spark

The key to feeling more creative is to get out of your left brain, the center for logic, and connect with your right brain, the center for feeling and creativity, says Barbara Gamin, director of the Expressive Arts Institute at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. You can easily make the switch in just a few minutes using the following techniques.

Write. Free your mind to think creatively by writing three pages each morning, suggests Mark Bryan, co-founder of the Artist’s Way, a worldwide creativity-building workshop based in New York City and Los Angeles. Write whatever comes to mind; allow your thoughts to flow onto the pages.

Use Your Nondominant Hand. Some experts suggest closing your eyes and drawing on a piece of paper with your nondominant hand. Do this for several minutes and then open your eyes and continue drawing until you recognize an image. Although it feels awkward, this process will activate the right side of your brain.

Breathe. Get in a comfortable sitting position, close your eyes, and breathe deeply through your mouth, exhaling with a forceful sigh, advises Gamin. Do this for 20 minutes and then breathe normally through your nose for five minutes, paying attention to the rise and fall of your chest. Focusing on your breathing will allow you to let go of left brain thought processes.

Take a Walk. Walking is a gentle, meditative exercise that helps quiet your left brain. Taking time to notice nature as you walk will help activate your senses and stimulate your right brain.

Kathryn Perrotti Leavitt is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colo. Leavitt plays her turn-of-the-century piano as a creative outlet.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Weider Publications

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group