Sooner or later, we all suffer grief, whether over a death, a challenging diagnosis, or a dream denied. I’ve learned the hard way that for people who are struggling with sadness, there’s comfort and healing in aimless creativity. For some of us, time with fuzzy yarn, a toy xylophone, or a box of glass beads might be a better prescription than a pill.
Dazed after a traumatic loss, I began craving sensations, desperate to feel heat or grit or even pain on my skin to ground me. Life didn’t feel worth living, but I clung to a sense of gratitude by noting the cheery burst of a dandelion blossom or the russets and golds of dead roadside weeds. Colors reminded me there was still beauty in the world.
Restless, I browsed yarn shops and an art supply store simply to admire the spectrums there. Colors led me to patterns, which assured me life sometimes had order—at least in a doodle or dot-painted mandala.
[Read: “Mandala Art: Drawing Your Way to Wholeness.”]
Though I’ve always been a creative dabbler, I never expected to find comfort in such light-hearted pastimes. In fact, I thought my creativity had failed me. For more than a year after the loss, I couldn’t write or even read anything immersive. As with waking from sleep, it hurt too much to return to the here and now.
So, I focused on my senses and hands. Low-effort crafts such as coloring eggs and painting rocks brought moments of meditative calm. The textures of yarn and fabric gave my skin a bit of the comfort that had been lost to my heart. Little projects, including plenty I abandoned, suited my short attention span and pulled me from one day to the next.
As time passed, I realized that my instinct to make things was a way to self-medicate, giving me instances of focus and flow that lifted me out of myself and my grief. I’ve since learned that brain science supports my instincts: Grounding ourselves in our bodies by activating our senses is a proven technique for healing trauma or managing daily stressors. By bringing together scraps of fabric and splinters of glass, I was helping my nervous system to regulate itself better and reassembling my broken heart into a new, colorful whole.
Art therapy is a common tool for therapists. But anyone can use the creativity we’re all born with to find relief from loss or pain.
Of course, when life is hard, we rarely feel creative. So, start smaller and aim lower. Think doodling instead of drawing, for instance. Follow your own inclinations.
- Knead polymer clay into balls without trying to sculpt.
- Plink the notes of a child’s xylophone or a wind chime.
- Fold pipe-cleaner creatures.
- String beads.
These small bites of creativity give more immediate comfort amid the inability to focus that grief and stress often bring. If even those are too much, snap photos with your phone camera or browse new ringtones to play with your senses with merely the click of a button.
Try something new. Remove pressure with the built-in guidance of an adult coloring book, a cheap paint-by-numbers or wood-working kit, or a spirograph. Visit a craft store to find options you never imagined.
If you feel slightly more energetic, resurrect a craft you enjoyed in the past, even as a child—including fingerprinting! Nothing’s too silly. No one else needs to know. You can always move on to fancier projects.
- Paint rocks and leave them in public.
- Fold and launch origami boats.
- Decorate cookies.
- Assemble a model car.
And when nothing appeals, simply indulge those senses: Sample essential oils, pet a cat or dog’s fur, tour your neighborhood’s flowers. Sensations help fix us in the here and now. It’s also okay to simply sit, be, and feel. The external sensations that comfort you most may lead you to create more of them for yourself.
Promise yourself not to care about the result, even if that means tossing your work before anyone sees, hears, or tastes it. Bonus tip: Crumpling, smashing, or stomping it can be cathartic, too! The results, after all, are irrelevant. It’s the process that soothes. Play, sensory input, and flow are the only goals.
[Read: “Clink, Rustle, Clack, Swoosh: The Basics and Benefits of ASMR.”]
Any self-expression that occurs along the way helps vent tough feelings as well. For instance, I’m not a dancer, but my creative wanderings also led me to expressive movement. The swaying, stomping, and contortions prompted by my grief left me lighter when the music ended.
You can feel lighter, too, by becoming a maker. The most important thing you’ll make is relief from your pain, and even tidbits of creativity can help heal.
Discover the dance cure with Dr. Peter Lovatt.