Your moods and emotions color the way you see the world, yourself, and your future. Negative mood states, such as anxiety, sadness, and anger, are part of the normal ebb and flow of human emotions. They provide a necessary counterpoint to the joyful and happy occasions of life, and they add depth to the “rich tapestry of human experience.” Of course, that doesn’t make them any more pleasant or easy to get through at the time you’re experiencing them.
We have negative moods and emotions, however, for a reason. They are a way of alerting us that all is not right with our world and that we may need to take some sort of action. Rather than trying to escape these negative feelings — with pills, liquor, or thrills of some sort — we are better off exploring them and trying to get at the cause of our distress so that we can meet it head-on.
One excellent way to explore your negative feelings is through creative outlets. Explorations of negative feelings have been the focus of many creative works throughout the centuries. Examples include Emily Dickinson’s famous poem “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,” playwright Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, Edvard Munch’s famous Expressionist painting “The Scream,” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor (“Pathétique” ).
You don’t have to be a renowned composer, painter, or playwright to experience the benefits of expressing your emotions creatively. In my new book, Your Creative Brain, I present a number of ways you can transform negative emotion through creative work.
For instance, you can depict your emotions on paper or canvas using paints, crayons, watercolors, or acrylic paints. Close your eyes and try to visualize your emotions without censoring what you see. Then get your colors out and go to town. Draw or paint whatever you feel. Your work can be abstract, representational, or anything in between, as long as it feels authentic.
A second creative outlet is writing. I recommend keeping a “feelings” journal where you can express your feelings in words without worrying about grammar or spelling. Just let it all spill out. Alternatively, you can create a fictional character and write about his or her feelings. Again, the form you employ is less important than the expression of your inner wellspring.
One of the most powerful expressions of emotion can come from playing or listening to music. Whether you play an instrument or act as your own personal DJ, try to find music — notes, chords, and rhythms — that matches your mood.
Other creative outlets include dance, drama, gardening or cooking. All of these can be used to express your moods creatively.
The side effect of exploring your emotions through creative activity is that it acts as a form of auto-therapy to actually elevate your mood. This is confirmed by English novelist Graham Greene, who wrote: “Art is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic inherent in the human situation.” Indeed, creative activity is the basis for a number of adjunct therapies that are gaining greater acceptance in the evidence-based therapy world, including forms of art, music, drama, and expressive writing therapy.
Note that psychoanalytic theorists consider the transformation of negative moods and desires into creative acts to be a form of ego defense. Called sublimation, this defense mechanism ranks high on the list of adaptive ego defenses (unlike some of the less adaptive defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, or projection). While protecting the fragile ego from distressing urges and feelings, sublimation also results in the creation of socially useful products and achievements.
Rather than calling it a defense mechanism, I prefer to call the transformation of negative inner states into creative activity simply a good and proper use of your creative brain.