Saturday, October 23, 2010

Creatively Mourning Chronic Disease: Why “Take a Break”

This post is being modified to include a very interesting comment made by Martha Beck about achieving contenment/happiness by making something. She put into words what a number of us have learned and it summarizes why I think it's important to have a "Take a Break" post each week. Her comment appears first and the original blog post follows.

How to Be Here Now: People started telling me to "be here now" when I was about 20. "Great!" I responded. "How?" Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn't force my brain to just "be still." Here it is: Make something.

You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we're most creative when we're happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.

To get a dopamine "hit," make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you're not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won't want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating.

As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you're physically and mentally active. You won't notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind's frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what's occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it's the opposite of dull. It's infinitely varied and exquisite.

The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you're left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.

Pay attention to this process, and you'll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You'll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you're not actively creating. When this happens, you'll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.

In the past month, I have been watching someone very close to me grapple with the death of a good friend, so I’m a bit tuned into the idea of mourning loss and the importance of doing so.

Yesterday, I came across an article by Joseph Nowinski, entitled “The New Grief: Is Creativity the Way Out of Mourning? “ He writes, “It is in our long-term interest that we allow ourselves to experience this journey into darkness, having faith that doing so will in the long run lead us back into the light. To achieve that result -- as opposed to getting stuck in the darkness -- we must be careful to give mourning the respect it is due, and to avoid seeking refuge in quick fixes, such as medication. I, too, have worked with returning veterans, and I have seen how such quick fixes can backfire, leading not to light at the end of the tunnel but to continued darkness in the form of unrelenting depression and anxiety.”

Nowinski uses the term “new grief” to describe the emotional changes that have come about now that most people live for a long time before they succumb to a disease (chronic illness) This new grief is the product of medical advances that have been brought to bear on terminal illnesses. As a result, what was once a, more or less, time-limited process of diagnosis leading to death has evolved into a drawn out process of diagnosis, treatment, remission (or arrest), relapse, more treatment, and so on. Not only the patient, but the entire family gets caught up in this process. Initially we may be very much aware of the emotions we experience.

While initial fear and anxiety arise when a diagnosis is given, over time it becomes that dull background emotion. Last Saturday’s post was about how the brain always has a trickle of fear running through it, which can quickly turn into a raging river when situations, such as grief, loss, and anxiety arise. In short, people dealing with chronic illness, where these emotions are part of the process, have more reasons then most to learn how to reduce the flow of fear in their brain.

Dr. Shelley Carson, the author of “Your Creative Brain,” is quoted extensively in Nowinski’s article Carson describes how the ongoing flood of negative emotion can lead to a loss of creativity. ….one effect of an ongoing negative background emotion such as grief (or anxiety) is that it makes us less open to novelty, less willing to explore or experiment. These, being the keys to creativity, mean that as we get entangled in the new grief we may also experience a disturbing loss of creativity.

The “take home point” of Nowinski’s article, is that creativity can help us heal because it reduces the flood of fear and anxiety. "We are all creative. Creativity is the hallmark human capacity that has allowed us to survive thus far." Viewed in that way, exercising our creativity in response to mourning makes sense.”

When asked how to be creative, Carson offers the following advise: First, keep learning new things. Take courses, read widely, and learn how to play a new instrument or how to cook Tuscan food. Learn, learn, learn! Second, try not to judge the things you’re learning. Keep an open mind. Everything you learn is a possible element that may make its way into some future creative idea that you can’t even imagine today. And the more open-minded you remain about what you learn, the more likely you are to see how it can be combined with other information to form a novel and original product or idea.

Each Wednesday is “Take a Break Day” on this blog. There are now over 50 ways to do that. So if you aren’t inspired by one week’s activity, definitely explore the others.

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