mental health

Make More Art: The Health Benefits of Creativity

James Clear found a review analysing over 100 studies about the impact of art on health. Here’s some of the things researchers had to say about the impact of visual art (see James’ article for all of them):

“Improved well–being by decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones” “Reductions in stress and anxiety; increases in positive emotions” “Reductions in distress and negative emotions” “Improvements in flow and spontaneity, expression of grief, positive identity, and social networks”

I have written about creation for health benefits before so it’s cool to come across this article backing up my pseudo research on the topic with some studies. James even cites a study that found cellular changes as a result of creation:

writing as a treatment for HIV patients... resulted in “improvements of CD4+ lymphocyte counts.” That's the fancy way of saying: the act of writing actually impacted the cells inside the patient's body and improved their immune system.


Consuming stuff seems to make you feel a little better at first, then worse if you consume too much. I don’t know about you, but I tend to default towards trying to consume something when I’m trying to feel better. Whether it’s food or something on the internet, it generally doesn’t work very well.

If I’m feeling down, I’ve found that the process of cooking food often helps me much more than eating does. I think it’s because creating something helps you feel better and I think it applies to more than food.

Let’s talk about that.

To create is to express yourself. To give words or form to what’s inside you. To make some part of what’s in side you tangible to others. Arguably what’s inside you isn’t even tangible to you until you create something.

In this search for meaning we’re all in, making something tangle to look at, hear, or feel is part of the search.

Consumption of stuff is important too. It fuels the flame and gives you material to test. It shows you what others have to show and lets you see things that couldn’t be created in a vacuum inside you.

But creation is where you take that fuel and do something with it. It’s the place you go to show part yourself that couldn’t be created inside someone else. It’s your exploration, it’s your thing.

Make more art. Your health and happiness will improve and we'll all be better off for it.

Reality isn’t What You Think and Feel

Humans are neither thinking machines or feeling machines. They’re feeling machines that think.

Antonio Damasio


I was panicking.

I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach. A tight ball of black wire wool was scratching away my insides.

My mind jumped into action.

You’re feeling this way because...

You didn’t eat much this morning, maybe you’re just hungr....

What if it’s the weather?

Maybe you miss Ollie?

When was the last time Ash hugged you?

Oh. It was yesterday. So… That must be it!

You’re feeling this way because you want Ash to hug you more.

That’s it. It’s hugs.

Phew. Thoughts to the rescue. My mind came up with the answer. Lucky I’m so smart and logical. Those fucking hugs, why won’t Ash hug me more?? I started to feel upset and a little lonely. The tight ball of black wire wool was still there, but I was distracted by how upset I felt that Ash didn’t hug me more.


Hang on.

This makes no sense. I have no idea where that answer came from. All I know is that I felt a sensation, likely attached to an emotion, and my mind sprayed a bunch of thoughts at me until I accepted one as the truth. It didn’t even address the ‘black wire wool’ sensation I was having - instead I created a distraction out of thin air… I thought it, I was able to come up with logic around the thought, so it seemed true.


If my emotions and my thoughts were people having a conversation it would be a very one sided conversation. My thoughts would be the kind of person who interrupts constantly, finishing sentences, not listening, just waiting until the next moment he can jump in and explain how it really is. My emotions would be the person being talked over, not being listened to, meekly saying “oh, no... that’s not what I was trying to say at all...” while the other person takes over the conversation.

My thoughts aren’t necessarily any truer than my emotions. And yet, something about me causes me to believe them over and above any other kind of signal I experience. Even though they’re mostly a random spray of ideas and general mind junk, my thoughts seem the most true.

Not everyone is like me. You might be convinced that your emotions are the truth. You’ll tell me that if you feel it, it must be true. You’ll accept your emotions as truth and do all sorts of mind tricks to fall in line with the truth.

You and I are not so different. I assume my thoughts are the truth and bend my emotions to fit and you assume your emotions are truth and rationalise to fit. What each of us tends to accept as reality obscures reality.

Emotions, thoughts, and sensations are just signals. The only thing that is ‘real’ is what we do. Barring a big philosophical discussion about what 'real' means. Let's do that another time.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not asking you to ignore your signals. They’re incredibly important parts of the way you perceive the world and work out what to do. But they’re not reality - they’re trying to tell you something about reality. I want you to see them for what they are and perhaps free yourself from the belief that your negative emotions or oppressive thoughts are real. For many of you, the starting point to this is the third signal - sensation.

The Triangle

These three signals; emotion, sensation, thinking; make up a nice neat triangle. I know that this triangle is much neater than you or I will ever be but this sort of simplification is a great start to understanding what goes on inside the complexities of your brain.

Paper.Tom things.1.png

Emotions are the motivations to take actions. Essentially, an emotion is a strong cue for you to move.

Thinking is the ’rational’ part of you brain trying to process, consider, reason, judge, and provide explanation to what’s going on.

Sensations are signals coming from the systems in your body designed to notice changes in environment internally and externally. For example, a sensation might be how the skin on your hand notices a change when you move it near the stove. A more internal sensation could be the how your muscles and connective tissue feel when you stretch them.

All of these elements are linked and it can be hard to distinguish between them sometimes. Luckily, it’s not that important for you to be able to do that.

What is important is that these three elements are constantly trying to interpret each other. If you're feeling a sensation, you interpret it with your emotions or you think about it. For example, you feel the sensation of pain. Maybe your response is to spend time thinking about why it’s hurting. Or perhaps you start to feel sad (an emotion) because you feel as though the pain will never go away. Either way, you are interpreting the sensation using the other signals available to you.

Sometimes this is helpful. Your thoughts about why you’re feeling pain might lead to you think of a way to stop the pain. But it’s not always helpful. Have you ever woken up feeling angry about a dream you’ve had? Has that anger crept into your day? When you wake up from a dream like that, you’re feeling the emotion of anger. Because you’re feeling that emotion, you rationalise that there must be a reason you’re angry so it feels much more reasonable to respond with anger to things in the real world. If you’re feeling the emotion, it must be for a reason!

Of the three sides of this triangle, thoughts and emotions are most often mistaken for fact. But as you can see from the dream example, they're merely signals and interpretations of your environment. They are all important and helpful at times, but when you start to believe them to be more than they are, you stop using them to interpret the world and instead find yourself caught in a weird abstraction of reality that feels completely true.

It’s hard to see the signals for what they are when you’re in the habit of believing them to be truth. It’s even harder when you have a particularly strong signal. Nevertheless, you can change how you react to your signals. You can change which signals you pay more attention to (remember, I tend towards believing that what I think is true). You can also change the way these signals are created in the first place.

Powerful stuff huh? Guess what? It’s basically just realising that all of these are signals and listening carefully to them. It’s simple to write, easy to say. Hard to do.

Paper.Tom things.1 2.png

Meta cognitive awareness is your ability to sit above this triangle and watch what’s going on in the triangle without perceiving anything in the triangle as a fact. You become an objective observer of your signals and can make choices about how to interpret them. It’s not about questioning what’s going on in the triangle or trying to rationalise why you can see things happening in a particular way (guess what? that’s just thinking...) You simply take the time to observe all the emotions, the thoughts that pop up, and any sensations you feel without doing anything about any of them.

That’s the beauty of this - you don’t have to do anything.

Just observe.

I’m not suggesting that you live your entire life like this, but the skill is incredibly useful to have. With a life time of practice in taking action in response to your thoughts, emotions or sensations, sitting back and observing instead will be hard. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to do this after reading my blog post about it. It takes practice.

This model is a simplification of the complex system that is you. The whole point of observing yourself in this way is to show you that you’re operating in a system. The thoughts, emotions, and sensations you’re having are all part of a system even if one feels overwhelming right now.

it gets a whole lot more complex than this but that’s for another time.

Meditation Practice

The objective of mindfulness meditation practice is to be able to observe your experience and to be less reactive. You focus on what’s happening right now in your body and mind. A common method to get into this state is to observe the sensations in the body such as the rise and fall of your breath.

There are many resources out there now to help you practice mediation. I successfully kicked off my mediation practice using the Headspace app which I continue to use today. I also use Oak for unguided mediations because of the great implementation of interval bells.

I strongly recommend using an app to help you or even better, an in person guided mediation. If you can’t, here’s a simple written guide to help you get started now.

  1. Get comfortable. You could sit on a cushion, your favourite chair, or even lie down.
  2. Take a few deep breaths, slowly drawing air all the way in and slowly releasing the air.
  3. Close your eyes and let your breath return to normal - make no effort to breath in a particular way.
  4. Focus your attention on the rising and falling sensation of the breath in the body. It might be in your stomach, or chest. If you can’t feel it, try putting your hand on your stomach.
  5. If it helps you to focus, count in your mind each breath as it passes up to 10 then start over at 1. For example, breath in, one, breath out, two, breath in, three etc.
  6. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. There’s nothing else to do. If your mind wanders, as soon as you realise it has happened, bring it back to focusing on your breath. Don’t worry - this will happen a lot. Coming back to the focus is the practice.

Maintain this practice for 5 minutes to begin with. You could set a timer using your phone. Try building up to longer periods of time as you get used to observing your ‘triangle’ like this.

Do you know which side of the triangle you tend to believe is true? I’d love to hear your answer in the comments!

How to Relieve Anxiety Symptoms with Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This post is going to be a little different from my previous ones.

I'm sharing this because over the weekend while talking with some friends I realised that most of them had experienced some sort of debilitating anxiety at some point. All of us (including me) had stories to share about anxiety.

One of the things I found that has helped me is a simple tool that helps me to relax. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique that systematically relaxes your body and is a very effective stress management technique. I started out following the steps I’m about to share with you. With practice I was able to learn to relax my whole body at once which is an enormously helpful skill. That said, I still find that I get more relaxation from the following steps.

  1. Close your eyes and start out with a few relaxing breaths. Try to breath using abdominal breath (you should be able to feel it in your tummy), and as you exhale feel the tension begin to ebb away.
  2. Hands. Clench your fists. Move your awareness to your hands. Clench both of your fists for up to 5 seconds. Release for 15-20 seconds, imagining the tension ebbing out of your hands.
  3. Biceps Tighten your biceps. Move your attention to your arms. Draw your forearms towards your shoulders, curling the biceps. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. As you release, imagine the tension flowing out of your biceps.
  4. Forehead and scalp. Move your attention to your forehead. As you inhale lift your eyebrows and wrinkle your forehead. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. As you release, feel the relaxation of the muscles of the forehead.
  5. Facial muscles. Move your attention to your facial muscles. Furrow your eyebrows and purse your lips. Try to pull all of your facial muscles towards your nose. Hold for up to 5 seconds, then release for 15-20 seconds. As you release, feel the relaxation of the facial muscles.
  6. Jaw. Bring your attention to your jaw. Clench your jaw tightly, feeling the tension in the surrounding muscles. Hold for up to 5 seconds and ten release for 15-20 seconds. Relax the muscles and allow the tension to disappear. You may feel your mouth begin to open a little. We hold a lot of tension in our jaw - this one is useful by itself.
  7. Neck and shoulders.Bring your awareness to this region. Shrug your shoulders towards your ears. Feel the tension in the surrounding muscles. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension in the muscles ebb away.
  8. Upper back/shoulders. Bring your awareness between the shoulder blades. Push your shoulder blades back as if you were trying to get them to touch. Feel the tension in the surrounding muscles. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension between the shoulder blades ebb away.
  9. Upper chest. Bring your awareness to your upper chest. Tighten the chest muscles and hold. Feel the tension in the upper chest muscles. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension in the chest muscles flow away.
  10. Stomach. Bring your awareness to your navel area. Try to draw your navel into your backbone. Feel your stomach muscles tighten. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension in the abdominal muscles dissipate.
  11. Bottom. Bring your awareness to your bottom. Squeeze your buttocks together, consciously tightening the muscles in this region. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension in these muscles disappear.
  12. Thighs. Bring your awareness to your thigh muscles. Try not to contract your stomach muscles as you consciously tighten your upper thigh muscles. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension in the thigh muscles dissipate.
  13. Calves. Bring your focus to your calf muscles. Consciously tighten your calf muscles by pointing your toes. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension in the calf muscles flow away.
  14. Feet. Bring your focus of attention to your feet. Tighten your feet by curling your toes towards the ground. Hold for up to 5 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Feel the tension in the feet flow away.
  15. Mentally scan your body for any residual tension. If you find a muscle group with residual tension then tense and relax this area again.
  16. Feel a wave of relaxation, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. When you are ready, bring your awareness back to your breath and slowly open your eyes.

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