The Power of Creativity on Mental Health — For Veterans and Everyone Else

Art therapy and creative expression are formidable tools for addressing addiction issues and mental health disorders. They're also fun!

May 4, 2023
Hand dipping paintbrush into palette

The human brain loves creativity. The creative spark and the follow-through of creation have offered humans fun, fulfilling and empowering opportunities for growth, expression, communication and even healing since our cave painting days. Creative expression is universal, yet it’s unique to each individual that explores it.

The simplicity and freedom of creativity make it an excellent avenue for overcoming mental health challenges. Veterans, in particular, can benefit from the value of creativity.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, engaging in art or art therapy can “offer great benefit in dealing with challenges and, often, has the possibility of inspiring joy” for veterans and their families.

Veterans suffer mental health and addiction challenges at higher rates than others, so all available therapeutic tools are worth exploring. The healing veterans can find through artistic expression can improve their day-to-day experiences with these issues.

Whether you’re a vet or not, using art therapy as a tool in your recovery can help you reinforce a strong sense of self, making it much easier for you to manage stressors, triggers and other challenges.

How Can Creativity Improve Mental Health?

Creativity can improve mental health in several unique ways. Studies show that creative activity — through music, visual arts, dance and beyond — has a positive effect on brain health, cognitive function and emotional well-being. Creative expression can improve symptoms and responses to various mental health challenges, from anxiety to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

By having a positive impact on the symptoms that come with co-occurring disorders of substance use and mental health, art therapy offers relief to veterans and civilians alike. Researchers recently wrote in the Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health that “art therapy is designed to help participants bridge their memories of past traumatic events to understand and communicate their traumatic experience.”

Particularly in the treatment of PTSD, art therapy provides a canvas for a person to explore their thoughts and feelings in an impactful and safe way.

Leaning into your creative gifts can open you up to the possibilities presented by creative freedom. There are a number of mental health benefits to creative pursuits, especially in a therapeutic setting. They can …

Creative expression grants any artist access to freedom and healing, whether you’re an amateur or a pro. The ability to share your work and potentially impact others with thought-provoking, insightful and personal themes can inspire vulnerability and shared healing experiences.

Creativity has also been shown to improve our bodies physiologically. Our brains, specifically, respond positively to creative practices. Recent research elaborates that engaging your creative side in fun and inspiring ways can revitalize the mind and stimulate pathways in the brain.

By activating the reward centers in the brain and decreasing stress levels, creative expression can help you reduce chronic stress. Addressing your stressors with tools such as art therapy can tamp down the symptoms and triggers of addiction and other mental health conditions and help pave the way for recovery.

Can Creativity Empower Veterans?

According to the World Health Organization, “the creation and enjoyment of the arts helps promote holistic wellness and can be a motivating factor in recovery.”

When veterans engage in creative expression, they can experience certain benefits:

  • Improved relational skills
  • Decreased stress
  • Improved mood and outlook
  • Greater sense of vitality
  • Improved brain function

Getting more comfortable with creative expression can help you improve your relational skills. When you express challenging feelings and learn how to work through them in your creative endeavors, that will carry over to your daily life and interactions.

Making time to get messy and express yourself without shame is a powerful way to connect with your most authentic self. When you can lower your stress levels, it’s much easier to be present with yourself and others to navigate challenges more easily, and truly make the most of each day.

Creative expression offers your mind and body a chance to connect more intimately. Taking your focus away from the external world and turning it inward can free up space in your mind to express and create with more positive intentions — and outcomes.

Let’s Get Started: How Do I Express Myself Creatively?

So there’s plenty of evidence that creative expression can provide a healthy avenue for navigating your thoughts and feelings, as a veteran or anyone dealing with trauma.

Finding something that gives you the space to define your own creative expression is possible, depending on your chosen medium. But it’s also possible to find creative activities that are more disciplined and structured, which provide a chance to learn or revisit something new and exciting.

There’s an almost endless list of artistic activities you can engage in for improved mental health. Some possible creative environments include:

  • Art therapy
  • Individual and group art classes
  • Watching tutorials online
  • Learning at your own pace

Choosing the learning method that works best for you will make your creative learning experience feel much more natural. Leaning into creative endeavors that resonate with you will make you more likely to stay committed.

The potential group or community aspect of your creative endeavors can open you up to new and meaningful connections. But learning new creative skills or honing old ones by yourself can also provide mental health benefits. Learning on your own can offer challenges and rewards that make the commitment more personal.

And if you feel particularly proud of your creations, there’s a variety of platforms for veterans to share their work with others.

So, where to start? Obviously, there are many different forms of creative expression. You might try:

  • Learning an instrument
  • Painting, sculpting or glass-blowing
  • Beadwork, sewing, knitting or crocheting
  • Writing plays, poetry or prose
  • Singing, dancing and acting
  • Drawing, sketching or digital design

One of the greatest aspects of creativity is that you can get creative in any way that suits you. For veterans and others with mental health issues, in recovery or not, art therapy can be a lasting tool to help manage stress and overcome challenging thoughts and feelings.

There’s no reason not to give it a try: Expressing yourself in healthy and inspiring ways can start pretty much anywhere!

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