(By Caroline McGarvie, Certificate in Stress Management student)

I found this an interesting topic to tackle, as it led me to reframe activities as creative which I had not previously looked at in that way. The Chambers Dictionary (2010) defines creativity as the ‘bring(ing) into being or form out of nothing; … bring(ing) into being by force of imagination’. This definition makes me realise that many of the pastimes and activities I have been doing for a long time, and others I have only undertaken recently, fall into this category.

For nearly 40 years I have been keeping a scrapbook of interesting quotes (gleaned from books, the radio from general conversation – or wherever people say interesting things) and pictures (mostly of artwork and newspaper photographs). This scrapbook now runs to about 4 volumes; the current one – still only two-thirds of the way through – was started in September 1997. I jot down meaningful phrases or pictures on scraps of paper, then – usually around New Year – I type them up, arrange them in balance of the page, and stick them in. Opening up my scrapbook now and looking at the pieces waiting to be ‘installed’, I see a photograph of the late James Gandolfini, several quotes (‘the gift that comes with age is realising you are not at the centre of other people’s lives’; ‘being alive in a complicated age’; ‘we’re all fragile, and we’re all very, very strong’; ‘to live a useful life’; ‘leaving offspring: the nearest we get to immortality’) and a photograph of a 1950s English street market. My scrapbook is immensely important to me – a background theme running through my life: it has given me a restful, reflective focus, especially at times of trouble, and has promoted self-knowledge, as I have evolved through my adult life, from being 23 and single, through meeting my life partner, building a family to now making plans for retirement. It has charted my course, as it were, by means of other people’s wisdom.

Although my scrapbook is definitely not a journal, I find it serves much the same purpose: as the Online Module says, it is a refuge where you can rest and recover and help you work through stressful events: ‘these small notes to yourself can make it easier to handle life’s distractions’. In the words of John Robson and Patrice Steen (who cite 100 benefits of journaling), journaling ‘details and lets go of the past’, ‘dignifies all events’ and ‘acts as your own counsellor’. In troubled times, I can sit down with my scrapbook and reconnect with the important themes in my life. This provides reassurance and helps counter my anxious thoughts with coping thoughts (The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, 2008).

Another creative outlet is my kitchen noticeboard: not the one housing facts and local information, but the large one beside the kitchen table where I pin quirky, interesting, provocative facts or news items and the odd striking picture. This is very much a social/family resource, prompting random, exploratory conversations and possibly piquing the interest of people who sit down at the table to eat a meal. When the children have been away for a while they will scan the noticeboard on their return, picking up on recent developments. The noticeboard has a roughly 12-month life span: I keep 2 or 3 items on the board to ‘kick-start’ the next instalment, put maybe half a dozen in my scrapbook pile, and then store the rest.

While researching this assignment I realised that my creativity takes a nurturing form, as I build an environment, at home and at work, which I find as congenial, visually pleasing and supportive as possible. Looking after my home and adding warm and welcoming touches is important to me: this seems to fall into the ‘Nurturing yourself’ category outlined in the Online Module: I ‘seek simplicity’ and create my own meditations. Gardening is important to me as much for the mindful preoccupation it offers as for its aesthetic qualities, though these are important. It also teaches me patience, and helps me keep in touch with the rhythm of the seasons: I have a 3-year ‘rule’ where I give even weakly plants 3 growing seasons in which to take hold. I enjoy the planning, transplanting and maintenance of my organic, self-seeding garden, where I can ‘cultivate contentment’ (Online Module). As Monty Don said in 2010 ‘(the garden) is our private place and, if we abuse it, the thought police are not going to whiz round. But we should all garden organically because it is the most sensible and the best way to make a good garden.’ The holistic nature of gardening mirrors the holistic, mind/body essence of wellness: through it you can ‘create balance’ (Online Module).

Another area of creativity came out of a desire to make an unsympathetic work environment more appealing and restful: as the manager of a charity shop, the behind-the-scenes sorting was stressful and dirty at times. By way of counterbalance I took time to arrange visually pleasing shop displays. The value of aesthetics in a sterile or unattractive environment has been explored by John Graham-Pole (1991) among others: he and his colleagues found that creative arts, play and humour are as important as chemotherapy, surgery and medication. In short, they are ‘agents of wellness’. I certainly found that attending to the part of my working environment over which I could exercise some control helped me feel calmer and also more valued, as it gave me a distinctly personal form of expression. It also had a social aspect, in that people might talk about a certain display, or want to buy one of my ‘props’ (e.g. a 1950s Picture Post calendar): it added both a focal and a talking point.

Similarly, I would choose music for the shop that seemed appropriate for the time of day, or fitted my mood: I would generally play something quieter in the morning – maybe Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash – followed by something more upbeat, like Credence Clearwater Revival, in the afternoon. Saturday was often a country and western day, and it was lovely hearing customers sing along, or foot-tap, or start chatting about the music to fellow shoppers: it definitely created an atmosphere in the shop. As the British Association for Music Therapy states music can affect our bodies so the pulse and respirations are in time with the music’s beat; music can influence mood and imagination, decrease blood pressure and improve motor function. It certainly helped me feel more relaxed both mentally and physically.

I have been working in a very quiet shop for the last 8 months, and have managed to keep the boredom at bay by taking up sock knitting. As well as physically creating something, I find it creative in the wider sense, because of the project nature of the task: I gather random balls of wool from charity shops, choose pleasing colour combinations, and knit the socks for specific individuals. This is very mindful, partly because of the need to concentrate and follow a pattern, partly because of thinking about the person I’m knitting for while doing the knitting. The rhythm is soothing, defuses stress and helps me relax. I am ‘in the moment’ but also looking forward to handing over the finished product.

Overall, my creativity encompasses long-term projects (like my scrapbook), medium-term projects (like my sock-knitting), and more short-term ventures (like choosing appropriate music to capture a mood). I think creativity is also about being open to new experiences and making connections. A recent pastime I’ve taken up is playing Scrabble with my husband: he works long hours at home in his study, and we thought it would be helpful for his sleep hygiene to share a mindful activity away from the computer before bed, to put some clear space between work and sleep. This seems to be working quite well, and is good fun (despite the fact that I normally lose!); it is also a form of exploration, as we riffle through the dictionary to check up on meanings. My favourite new word is ‘attuition’ which the Chambers Dictionary describes as ‘a mental operation between perception and cognition’: I feel this describes how certain words or events resonate – without us consciously processing them – and prompt creative thoughts.

Bibliography

  • Online Module Number 6, Stress Management Certificate
  • Davis et al., ‘The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook’ (Chapter 14), 2008
  • John Graham-Pole, co-founder of ‘Society for the Arts in Healthcare’, 1991
  • British Association for Music Therapy (www.bamt.org)
  • Monty Don ‘A Bug’s Life’, Observer Life, 21.2.99
  • The Chambers Dictionary, 2010