The collective understanding we have as a community that physical exercise is not only great for our cardio fitness and health, but also for our mental health, is now widely accepted. The research, trials, public health campaigns and health promotion of this idea have now become widely understood and accepted. It wouldn't be surprising to anyone to see their GP about feeling depressed, and that alongside therapy and medication, a routine of exercise be suggested.
Social Prescribing, and Creative Prescribing, is about the movement for GP's and allied health to recommend a range of activities, like art, music, writing, nature, cooking, gardening and photography, in much the same way.
Because it is also being proven, over and again in research, trials, pilots and studies, that a range of creative practices are also really fantastic for improving and maintaining our mental health. While we definitely hear lots of suggestions that 'time out', 'time for yourself', 'self care' and 'being creative' are good ways to relax, the understanding of what actually happens when we engage in these practices is not so widely understood, valued or accepted in the mainstream as yet.
Mental illness affects 1 in 5 Australians, and at least 2 in 5 people experience challenges to their mental health at any time, that may not be a diagnosed illness. More than ever, in 2020, mental health services and support options are stretched, to capacity, to cope with the rise in anxiety, trauma, depression and collective impact of humanity in survival mode.
While increasing the capacity of mainstream and essential mental health services is vital, alongside that is an opportunity to increase the literacy and understanding of how each person can individually find strategies and understandings to notice, be curious about, and manage symptoms that show up on a daily basis, with some targeted self care practices.
Self Care isn't just bubble baths and walks on the beach. Targeted self care means first learning how challenges to your mental health show up. If you start to become aware of patterns like insomnia, busy brain, obsessive thoughts, ruminating and feeling agitated and 'edgy' often, we can learn that this is a fight/flight response keeping your brain in a state of vigilance, for self protection.
Many studies show that micro practices of drawing, painting, ceramics, craft, knitting, sewing, singing, dancing and so much more, actively calm the amygdala (our survival and stress response) and help to regulate our nervous system back to being in our Window of Tolerance, where we are connected to our pre-frontal cortex that enables us to learn, feel empathy, problem solve, be grounded. So, it turns out, these activities are enabling invisible, small shifts in our brains' state and frame. On top of this fantastic news, creative practices connect us to delight, to pleasure, fun and joy - essential antidotes for tricky times. And ALSO, they can help bring a sense of purpose, pride and connection as we make, build, paint, create and tend to things we have put time into, like a garden, a drawing, a song or a cake.
This is important to understand, as it opens up the option for every single person to spend time being curious about how the impacts of stress, overwhelm, anxiety, trauma, burn out and depression show up, and learning to cultivate the practices that specifically help to offset some of these experiences.
Our culture doesn't promote this kind of self reflection. Learning that every single person moves up and down a spectrum of mental health, between wellness and illness, and that experiencing impacts at times in life in response to loss, grief, stress, tragedy, trauma is a completely normal human experience, is the first step.
Removing shame and inviting in curiosity allows us to fully explore and figure out what exactly works for you. Just like the impacts of challenges to mental health - like numbness, anxiety, negative self beliefs, tightness in the body, these things can creep up on is, until suddenly they are overwhelming.
In the same way, we can introduce small, impactful, micro habits of self-regulation, like 10 minutes of morning writing, or a daily walk in nature, singing in the shower, or dancing and moving for 5 minutes, that inch by inch infuse and impact our nervous system until, after a while, they have a big impact.
To explore these practices, we often have to remove from the path the beliefs that we aren't good at these things, or that we are not creative, or 'arty' or that we need 'talent' to do them. Sweeping away life long ideas of self judgement takes time, and practice. But it's possible. And worth it when the result means we have more in our toolbox for keeping ourselves mentally and physically well.
Our programs are designed to walk people through this experience of first learning and growing awareness of what it looks like when their mental health is being challenged. And secondly, to curiously explore a range of practices, proven to make a difference to regulating our nervous system. And finally, to figure out what practices connect, inspire and ultimately empower people to form habits that can be sustained in the long term.
This is putting power back in the hands of individuals to be able to look after themselves on tough days. It's not a magic fix that will solve or remove a complex diagnosis. It doesn't mean that you won't experience overwhelm, anxiety, burn out or trauma ever again. What it does mean is having woken up and strengthened the muscle of delight, the muscle of self care that makes looking after your mental health a daily, lifelong non-negotiable practice.