Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Can creativity calm an anxious mind?

Professionals offer advice on how to control anxiety

Express Staff Writer

Express graphic by Kristen Kaiser

Being distracted is not always a bad thing; in some instances, it can be considered therapy.

Everyone's been nervous at one time or another—before a big test, a presentation or performance, or a visit to the doctor.

Anxiety and panic rise to another level of physical and emotional response and recurrence.

Engaging oneself in creative pursuits, to the point of healthy distraction, can help manage symptoms, according to healing arts supporters.

An informational presentation, "Anxiety, Panic and the Healing Arts," drew about 25 people to St. Luke's Wood River on Thursday, March 22. It was the last in the winter series of Brown Bag health talks, organized by St. Luke's Center for Community Health. The session was led by licensed clinical social worker Gay Miremont and Company of Fools actress Denise Simone.

Distracting oneself from troubling thoughts and feelings can have positive impacts on a person's response.

"You can change the way you think and that can change your behavior," Miremont said.

Painters, dancers and actors, for example, become absorbed in their work, distracting themselves from issues swirling around them.

"That's, in a sense, where these healing arts are coming from," Miremont said.

Medical professionals describe anxiety as excessive worry about many things on more days than not for at least six months, according to information Miremont provided from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Symptoms can be restlessness or feeling on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbance.

Panic is a period of intense fear or discomfort that occurs suddenly. Symptoms may include pounding heart, sweating, trembling, chest pain, dizziness and other unpleasant sensations.

Miremont said people experiencing panic attacks have come to the emergency room thinking they are having a heart attack.

"It's that intense," she said.

The healing arts are becoming a more accepted part of medicine, she said, especially prevention.

"Creativity plays a big role in wellness," she said. "People say, 'I don't have a creative bone in my body,' Yes, you do."

It works best, though, when people have faith in creativity as a therapeutic method.

"The more a patient believes in that treatment, the more effective the treatment," she said. "I think that's what's really most important."

Simone said she's seen that on numerous occasions in her 30 years working in the arts.

"I've had the honor to bear witness to the healing power of art," she said.

Adapting the arts, or other creative outlets, as a tool for healing doesn't necessarily require training or even skill in acting, drawing or other art forms. Doodling, gardening or journaling can offer benefits.

"The pruning of a plant can be profoundly creative," she said.

The creative process is enhanced by quiet, or a slowing down of one's mind and surroundings, Simone said.

"It's very difficult to be safely creative in the spin," she said.

Simone engaged attendees of Thursday's session in stream-of-consciousness writing. Given a pen and paper, participants were instructed to write "I remember ..." followed by whatever came to mind. If nothing came to mind, "I remember ... I remember ..." could fill in the blanks until something else took its place.

The purpose, she said, is to allow expression of thought—uncontrolled thought—in a controlled, safe environment. That can be a healthy distraction or an exercise in creative writing—either of which can be a salve for an anxious mind.

Rebecca Meany:

Tap mental health resources

St. Luke's Center for Community Health can direct people to mental-health resources in the Wood River Valley. Call 727-8733 for information.

What might work

Licensed clinical social worker Gay Miremont and Company of Fools actress Denise Simone offer these therapy options for anxiety: herbals, yoga, meditation, breathing and relaxation exercises, cognitive behavioral therapy done with a psychotherapist, systematic desensitization therapy and distraction therapy such as exercise, art, crafts or music. They recommend that people begin treatment by first having a discussion with a primary-care doctor.

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