Self expression to improve well-being and mental health

As an art therapist, I'm keen to encourage creativity and see the many benefits gives. Here, I'm going to use creativity and self-expression as useful tools to improve well-being and mental health.


Expressing yourself is probably the most important thing you can do to help improve your well-being and is an excellent foundation for good mental health. It is important to find the means of self-expression that work for you. There may be a few different types that you are drawn to and you may need to try some out before finding the ones you love.

Self-expression needs to have a physical element to it and the focus is a movement from the internal to the external. This can be emotional to physical with a sense of 'getting it out'. But have an awareness of this as an intention rather than just reacting without thought.

Trauma can often leave us with feelings of guilt and shame which predominantly make us feel silenced, trapped and stuck. Evidence suggests that sensory and bodywork can be key to moving through this experience. Self-expression can be a gentle way to start.

The book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron implements a practice called The Morning Pages which is a three-page free journaling activity to be done every morning. This is a great start to self-expression, though I would advise trying not to hold on too much as to when or how often these pages are written. You could even buy a very small notebook so you don't have to write so much if the amount of writing is preventing you from starting this practice.

The important thing is that you write whatever comes into your head. It doesn't have to be 'good writing' or even make any sense. It is not for anyone or anything other than self-expression. The main thing is that you are able to get out some of the thoughts and feelings you have swimming around your mind and body onto paper. By doing this, the paper keeps safe your contained expression for you with the hope that you can then move on with your day.

Other forms of expression may be:

1. Physical

We all know the benefits of being active and using sports for our physical and mental health but what about as a way of expression? Martial arts and boxing can be useful ways of expressing anger in a safe environment. Punching a punchbag or pillow can have a similar effect at home if a class feels too overwhelming or costly. Channelling difficult thoughts or feelings into a strong punch or kick is extremely therapeutic if done safely. Other activities such as trampolining, running, swimming, and cycling where your body gets feedback are also useful ways to express some of the feelings that can get trapped inside. The idea is to focus the difficult thoughts and feelings into each action. Being aware of this helps the process take place and can boost the activity also.

2. Body expression

Breathing techniques are often used in line with mindful practice but what about a way of expression? Chinese medicine practitioners often talk about the importance of sighing as a way of getting out those build-up feelings. Crying when we need to can also be your body's way of releasing stress just as much laughing can be. The more we allow our body to do these things the more we are processing and getting out the feelings. This is so good for us!

3. Creative expression

Along with journaling, other ways of creative expression are painting, drawing, sculpting, collage, building, printing, filming and photography, dancing, playing music, singing, and acting. These are forms that can be explored by yourself or with others. Perhaps you want to try a class but feel nervous. Could you try an online class first or meet with friends at your home to encourage each other? Maybe just find art materials you have around the house and see what happens if you try to use them. Like the journaling, the images do not need to be shown to anyone else. In fact, the end product is not that important. Instead, play and experiment, notice how you feel whilst making the image and how you feel after. Does it change?

Think about the movements your body uses whilst developing creative expression. For example, painting can feel soothing as the paintbrush marks have a stroking type action. Dancing can release tension or feel invigorating. What are the feelings you are looking for? How do you feel now? What do you need? Can you develop self-expression into a regular practice?

These small steps made on a regular basis can have huge impacts. Through self-expression we learn to find our voice, we can feel more comfortable in our bodies and minds, and we make connections with the world around us and others. It is through this understanding we develop a sense of well-being and good mental health.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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