Art is a way to find yourself and lose yourself at the same time. When troubled, we experience the monkey mind, thinking of worst outcomes, or replaying past events. A creative pursuit helps stall that process by helping us actively practice mindfulness. There is no wrong brush stroke in art; you simply incorporate that into the painting and create something beautiful out of it. A good philosophy for life too, it seems.
The experience of being an inpatient during this pandemic can be isolating and unnerving. This is a unique period in the history of mankind, and we are rallying forces to combat a deadly virus. Why not incorporate art to help support recovering patients and overwhelmed caregivers? Making art is a deeply personal undertaking that can be practiced in solitude with a few simple tools. It can be calming and akin to meditation in those physically well enough to try it. In prehistoric times, there was an intense focus on the idea of a body-mind relationship. Even Hippocrates believed that body and mind are a unity, and to affect one is to affect the other.
Louie Pasteur, the famous microbiologist’s dying words were, “the pathogen is nothing; the terrain is everything.” So, what if we worked on making the mind and body conducive to healing, thus focusing on the terrain, while the disease is being treated by cutting edge science? Nurturing hope, love, and joy using music and art therapy can make a huge difference. Coronavirus is affecting millions and taking countless lives. Of equal importance is the resulting moral injury, burnout, and isolation affecting our collective morale. Using every available resource is crucial now.
As children, we are encouraged to indulge our creative selves. Parents proudly display their child’s art on their refrigerator and office space noticeboards. Whether the art is good or not is immaterial. The fact that it was produced is celebrated. Funny how we lose this ability to revel in the process of creation as an adult and become critical instead.
Personally, while going through a traumatic time, art classes helped me tremendously. That hour of wielding my charcoal pencil was a time out from dealing with the mess that was my life. I would take joy in whatever I created, even if it was as simple as sketching a spoon or a basket of fruits. There is something immensely gratifying about letting creativity express itself through you. Art played a huge role in channeling my difficult emotions into something beautiful. It doesn’t diminish the work one has to do to overcome a struggle. It simply helps in the healing process.
When my critically ill patients get extubated, they are relieved to be free from the uncomfortable tube that was a barrier to their speech and expression. Encouraging them and providing bedside rehab is my priority at this juncture. I try to get them out of bed to chair as soon as possible, while treatment continues. I ask the family to get photos and play music, which always helps cheer them up. When my patient can hold a fork to eat, I give them a page from a coloring book for kids. Often the pens slip out of their hands. Improving their coordination while getting past their frustration, bolsters their confidence, and teaches them to be patient with themselves. With time, it improves their dexterity and gives them hope. A small intervention that reminds them that their recovery and independence is within reach.
A lady who found herself paraplegic after an awful car accident was at a loss while adjusting to a new life and going through a divorce. A previously healthy and happily married woman, she was now desperately dependent on others for daily activities. During these challenging times, she found her outlet in art. Emotions that were too difficult to name or express had a release every time she touched her canvas with paint. She talks about it passionately in a popular TED talk. Her road to recovery was filled with stories of creativity. Today, she is a well-known artist and has a rich collection of paintings, a beautiful expression of the human experience.
Art is known to help post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and those in palliative care. A dying patient can feel a range of emotions, and so can the people around them. Dedicating a portion of their day to a creative pursuit can help brighten their life. Art is a healing modality that is vastly underappreciated and underutilized. More so, it is a simple way to make a remarkable difference. Giving emotions an outlet and boosting a person’s morale is a crucial step in recovery.
Some hospitals dedicate a room for art therapy. Usually available only to patients and only to those who can physically reach that place. Caregivers need creative outlets too. The range of human suffering that we encounter has a profound effect on our consciousness, whether we are aware of it or not.
Art can help patients and families alike. It can help healers and those being healed. It requires very few items to start with, some encouragement, and the courage to unleash our creativity. The output itself matters less than the process itself.
Big Magic is a fantastic book that illustrates these ideas well. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s words: “Art and creativity help add texture to our experiences. It helps us live with courage. To bravely express the treasures inside of us is to risk delight. To revel in the happiness of our creations is to accept our gladness and live our most creative lives in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
Art heals. It is a cost-effective, simple, and highly enjoyable therapeutic modality. Just as language is integral to our lives for communication and self-expression, art and creativity are vital to our well being. Engaging in creativity is practicing mindfulness. I firmly believe it is time to take art therapy into all healing spaces.
Sonali Mantoo is a critical care physician.
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