What is health?
The WHO defines health as the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.1 From this definition we can infer that our minds and bodies, both key players in our state of health, are intrinsically connected. This should come as no surprise: when we feel excited we get flutters in our belly, when we are sad we can lose our appetites, and our ability to sleep often depends on our stress levels. Likewise, we see that when we choose to go for a run, do a little dance, or hug a friend, we feel happier and more prepared to handle what life throws at us. Our physical health can affect our minds, and our mental health can affect our bodies, whether it be positively or negatively. We can make the decision to engage our bodies and minds in intentional ways so that the whole of us can heal together.
Why are we going over this?
First of all, because it always matters. I long to see a world filled with happy and healthy people. I was blown away when I learned these things, and I hope you are encouraged by all of it too.
Secondly, our nation and world have experienced some trauma in 2020. Which means individually, we are experiencing that trauma in one way or another. For some of us, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought unjust killings, police brutality and grand-scale systemic oppression to the forefront of our media intake and personal experience, while others of us have been experiencing these truths long before the media decided to cover any of it. And all of this lands under the threat of a highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic. This is hard. We may all process it differently and are even affected by it differently, but we all are soaking it in somehow.
So how do we care for ourselves in this time? How do we get ahead of that trauma and its effects? There are a lot of different ways, as you can imagine, but today we are focusing on how engaging in the arts can heal us.
To start, let’s look at the physical body and how it stores mental and physical pain. Understanding this is key in understanding how to respond to it.
The brain’s main job is to make sure that we survive. When a traumatic (distressing or disturbing) event occurs, our brains send a message to our body that we are in danger, whether it be physically or emotionally.2 In reaction to our brain’s chemical message, our body is propelled into a fight, flight, or freeze response. All of our energy is focused on survival, and any unnecessary or otherwise distracting information is blocked from us. We may even be in action before we have registered what is going on. When the event passes and our brain understands that we are now safe, it slows the stress hormone secretion and we gradually return to our normal state of mind.
If for some reason we are prevented from responding in our usual way, whether it be fight, flight, or freeze, the brain continues to secrete stress chemicals even if the threat has left us. For example, if my usual response is to run away, but I am physically trapped when an event occurs, my brain will know that I have not run and so I must still be in danger. It will keep firing warning signals in vain. Whether we remember the details or not, they did happen, and do affect us. Our body stores those memories away and our brain slightly adjusts its nervous system, which is outlined a bit more below.
Our limbic system is responsible for dealing with memory, emotion, and our endocrine system. Sensory experiences are received through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin and they move through the thalamus which puts together a nice narrative of what is happening to us, the message is then sent to the amygdala which decides with the hippocampus whether or not the information is necessary for survival, sometimes taking past experiences into account.
When our limbic system doesn’t detect a threat, the message travels to our frontal lobe, which puts all of the information into cognitive thought. Here we can thoughtfully observe what is going on, predict what will happen, and take time to choose what to do from there. Being able to calmly handle life’s situations like this is a key element in our health.
However, if a threat is in fact detected, the message is also sent down to the hypothalamus and brainstem, where stress hormones are then secreted and we are kicked into our stress response (fight, flight, freeze). The communication from amygdala to hypothalamus & brainstem is much faster than it is to the frontal lobe, which means our stress hormones are being secreted before we have thought about the danger we’re in. This usually works to our advantage, as our body automatically gets us out of the way of the dangerous situation.
All of this seems pretty straight forward, but here is where I introduce the glitch: if past trauma is stored in our memory, the limbic system could detect a threat even when there isn’t one. This can be detrimental to an individual’s health, as being in a constant survival state doesn’t allow someone the ability to be curious, to notice details, to focus on things other than the fear, to relax, to play. Because the message to the hypothalamus is so much quicker than to your frontal lobe, “knowing better” won’t help you out right away. Your body will be sent into survival before you can even think about how safe you actually are. You’ll eventually become aware of the false alarm, but you’ll have to wait for your frontal lobe to receive the safe message and send a signal down to stop your stress hormones from firing.
How our limbic system responds to our sensory experiences drastically affects the way we deal with stress, the way we respond to our emotions, and even, how we interpret other’s emotions.
All of this might seem like a bunch of subconscious responses that we can’t control or alter. While these responses are in fact automatic, we can intentionally engage with our minds to direct future responses. Intentionally plugging into our physical and cognitive self-awareness, both when we are safe and when we are in danger, can actually retrain our limbic system in the way it responds to our sensory experiences. Strengthening our physical and cognitive self-awareness can prevent these false alarms from even happening. Additionally, understanding our triggers, why we respond the way we do, and how we can regain a sense of safety in those frightening moments brings us into a place where we can work with our bodies, instead of being subject to them.
The point is, our brains and bodies can heal. If trauma, big or small, has upset our responses to life’s events, there are things we can do to get it back into a healthy state. Small, intentional, informed choices can be enough to keep our limbic systems in check, so that we can thrive in the midst of surviving.
From a place of understanding the brain and how it processes difficult situations, we can intentionally engage our bodies and minds in order to heal from these hurts, from the inside out. Studies show that integrating both nonverbal and verbal behavior is key in properly healing from traumatic events.3 Simply put, nonverbal processing leads to physical self-awareness and verbal processing leads to cognitive self-awareness. Physical self-awareness is the ability to understand what you are feeling, and cognitive self-awareness is the ability to put those feelings into words. Both forms of self-awareness are necessary for holistic healing.2
Nonverbal processes (actions that allow us to feel our emotions, express ourselves, & release any inhibitions) actually access the areas of the brain and body that the trauma is directly affecting. These areas of the brain are not accessible by verbal expression alone.3 Rather, physical self-awareness can lead to strengthened cognitive self-awareness.
Bessel Van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score, puts it this way:
Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies. […] In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.2
In other words, physical self-awareness is the starting point in feeling safe enough to process trauma. By engaging our bodies and minds in specific ways, we are essentially uncovering those suppressed memories that were traumatic when we experienced them. Engaging our bodies allows us to process the emotions in a way that feels safe, when maybe we don’t yet have the words to process with, or when talking about it directly feels dangerous or scary.
So how do we process nonverbally? By engaging in the arts. This can mean something different for everyone, but studies show that choosing to engage in the arts (dance, visual art, drama, etc) does have positive and long-lasting effects on a person’s health.4 Engagement in the arts can heal emotional and physical injuries, alter behaviors and thinking patterns, develop a capacity for self-reflection, and increase understanding of oneself and of others.5
How do we engage in the arts?
Whether we are creating something ourselves, participating in artistic activities, or just appreciating the work of others, the mere engagement can boost our moods, regulate our emotions, and bring healing to our minds and to our physical bodies.6
Creating art is one way to engage. And by “creating art” I simply mean expressing yourself through your medium of choice. As dance therapist Anne Krantz and research psychologist James Pennebaker put it, “[…] even when there are no words, there is always a body that can be brought into the process of making sense out of one’s experiences.”3 And the thing about creating art is that there is no wrong or right way to do it, as long as you are expressing yourself. Consider drawing with chalk, writing a poem, making a collage, cooking a meal, or sewing a dress! Anything goes.
Participating in artistic activities is also beneficial. Singing along to your favorite song or reenacting your favorite Broadway scene are good ways to participate. Studies show that movement, when done thoughtfully, is a beneficial nonverbal processing technique that can release inhibitions, repressions, and dissociations that are preventing us from getting to a place of self-awareness.3
Simply appreciating things that are awe-inspiring heals us too! Researchers have made the connection that feelings of awe and wonder lead to lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are essentially proteins that make it harder for your immune system to work, and high levels of them can lead to diabetes, heart disease, clinical depression, and alzheimers, to name a few.8 Listening to a song and admiring the lyrics and composition, reading poetry you love, or even getting outside and enjoying nature are all great ways to appreciate what has already been created.
Engaging in the arts in these ways will be a benefit to your overall health no matter what, but even more so when you are intentionally allowing yourself to feel your emotions as you engage.3
In light of the trauma that the world is currently experiencing, we encourage you to get ahead of your pain by engaging in the arts. Process your emotions as they come, so that your limbic system doesn’t do anything wild. Notice, feel, and know. Your physical, mental, and social health will be better for it. There is freedom in artistic engagement, so do as you please! But if you feel that you need help to get started, we’ve made a list below.
Press some flowers.
This activity is unique in that you can engage with the arts by observation, participation, AND creation. Take a walk and allow yourself to notice the scenes around you. Is anything awe-inspiring? Let yourself reflect on these things. Pick a few flowers or leaves from the fragrant plants. Once you’re home, you can smash these pickings between books. Once flattened these fragile capsules of beauty can be used as bookmarks, as pieces in art projects, or they can be framed just as they are. And then you’ll have a beautiful work of art to gaze upon every day and to remind you of the wonder you felt as you took that walk.
Look at art.
Visit a painting in the museum, notice each brush stroke and the texture of the piece. Consider what it took the artist to get there. How were they feeling when they created it? How can you tell?
Can’t go to the museum? Find a photographer on Instagram and take a moment to look closely at a single piece of their work. How did they arrange the composition? What sort of thoughts went into the photo? What thoughts does the photo prompt for you?
Taking some time to slow yourself down and sketch for a moment can be a great way to connect your mind to your body. Any pain or frustration, and also any celebration, can be documented by doodles. Fun Bonus: Try focusing on your breath as you doodle. Breathing is unique in that it’s something you can fully control and it directly affects the chemicals your brain will release. Deep slow breaths will calm you, while quick breaths will release stress hormones.2
Engage the senses.
Take ten minutes to sit somewhere outside. This could be in a beautiful park, or simply on your doorstep. As you sit there, intentionally engage your five senses.
- Sight – What do you see? Are there birds in the sky? Dark clouds? Do you notice any tiny ants living their whole lives under your feet?
- Sound – What do you hear? Are the trees rustling in the wind? Are animals talking to each other? Is a neighbor mowing? Can you hear the weather?
- Touch – What do you feel? How do your feet feel planted on the ground? How warm is your seat? Do you feel a breeze or the heat of the sun? Do you have any pain in your body or mind? Does any particular part of you feel especially comfortable?
- Smell – What do you smell? Can you smell the soil that is still drying from it’s morning dew? Do you smell any flowers? Maybe you smell something not-so-pleasant, take note of that too.
- Taste – What do you taste? Is the air especially sweet today? Do you have a coffee or tea to sip on? What are the flavor notes?
Your mind will probably wander, and that’s okay. As soon as you realize you wandered, just come back to noticing your senses. You could try writing these observations down in a journal, or just simply experiencing them.
Write to yourself.
Is something specific bothering you? Consider writing a letter that you’ll never send. This practice can often move your emotions into words (physical self-awareness to cognitive self-awareness), and might even uncover some hidden feelings you were having in the midst of your obvious frustrations.
If you don’t know what has been bothering you exactly, try just looking at a household object. What does it make you think of? If a memory or thought pops up, start writing about that. Let yourself express whatever comes up; the story is uniquely yours. You may look back at the writing and be surprised about the emotions that did come out. Observing your handwriting can also be informative. Alterations in emotional states can be seen physically in the way we write (cursive, block letters, etc), how much pressure we were holding in our pens, and how large or slanted we were writing.2
Psst. Studies have shown that when someone intentionally writes about something that has brought pain to them, their overall health improves.3 This includes improved immune systems, school performance, and career status, healthier coping mechanisms, and fewer doctor visits. Seriously, studies show that!
Do a little dance.
Turn on some music and let yourself feel your emotions. When they come up, try expressing them in the form of movement. This dancing exercise isn’t about perfecting your impressive dance moves, but rather, allowing yourself to move in new ways based on emotion.
As Anne Krantz, PhD, notes in her article on dance therapy:
The dance therapy process allows a fundamental change in the client’s relationship to her body by active psychophysical expression of experiences connected to the symptoms and thus, provides release from the symptom.7
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
The Healing Environment Without and Within by Deborah Kirklin and Ruth Richardson
Informative Articles & Studies
The Science of Awe by Summer Allen, PhD
A Study of the Effects of Visual and Performing Arts in Health Care by Rosalia Staricoff, PhD, Jane Duncan BA, Melissa Wright, MSc
The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature by Heather L . Stuckey, DEd and Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH
Expressive Dance, Writing, Trauma, and Health: When Words Have a Body by Anne M. Krantz, PhD, ADTR and James W. Pennebaker, PhD
We Want to Hear From You
We hope you enjoy these exercises. If you know of any others, especially if they have been beneficial to your holistic health, please drop them in the comments below!
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
- Expressive Dance, Writing, Trauma, and Health: When Words Have a Body by Anne M. Krantz, PhD, ADTR and James W. Pennebaker, PhD
- The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature by Heather L. Stuckey, DEd and Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH
- Playing in the Mud: Health Psychology, the Arts, and Creative Approaches to Healthcare by Paul M. Camic
- The Healing Environment Without and Within by Deborah Kirklin and Ruth Richardson
- Growing into Her Body: Dance/ Movement Therapy for Women with Eating Disorders by Anne Krantz, PhD
- Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines by Jennifer Stellar, Neha John-Henderson, Craig Anderson, Annie Gordon, Galen McNeil, and Dachner Keltner