Can Creativity Cure Depression? An Interview With Dr. Carrie Barron

creativity cure book

Dr. Carrie Barron, a board-certified psychiatrist/psychoanalyst on the clinical faculty of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons who also has a private practice in New York City.  She has published in peer-reviewed journals, won several academic awards, and presented original works related to creativity and self-expression at national meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Along with her husband, Alton Barron, M.D., a hand and shoulder surgeon, she co-authored the book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands.

Dan:

Why is depression such a problem in our culture?

Carrie:

I think the level of stress has gone up enormously because we have so much to do and we’re on twenty-four hours a day. So I think because of technology, which offers us so many great things, but gives us much to do. I think that’s part of it. I also think, especially for children, we’re in a striving, ambitious, be productive all the time mentality – for children and adults. We need to play, we need to hangout, we need to have spontaneous time. I think spontaneous thought does a lot for alleviating depression and anxiety.

The Creativity Cure for Depression: An Interview with Dr. Carrie Barron

Today’s guest is Dr. Carrie Barron, a board-certified psychiatrist/psychoanalyst on the clinical faculty of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons who also has a private practice in New York City.  She has published in peer-reviewed journals, won several academic awards, and presented original works related to creativity and self-expression at national meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Along with her husband, Alton Barron, M.D., a hand and shoulder surgeon, she co-authored the book, The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands.

Dan:

Why is depression such a problem in our culture?

Carrie:

I think the level of stress has gone up enormously because we have so much to do and we’re on twenty-four hours a day. So I think because of technology, which offers us so many great things, but gives us much to do. I think that’s part of it. I also think, especially for children, we’re in a striving, ambitious, be productive all the time mentality – for children and adults. We need to play, we need to hangout, we need to have spontaneous time. I think spontaneous thought does a lot for alleviating depression and anxiety.

Dan:

We have so many different words in our culture for unpleasant experiences. We might say things like, “I’m sad,” “I’m burnt-out,” “I’m stressed-out,” or “I’m depressed.”  But what is the difference in your mind, as a clinician, between sadness, say, and depression?

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Carrie:

Sadness is a normal emotion. We don’t have to treat everything and be afraid of sadness. We don’t have to pathologize everything. There is a range. I mean, life can be very hard and it’s appropriate not only to have it, but let yourself have it. Sometimes it is actually moving towards the authentic feeling, rather than running away from it, that actually makes it go away. You first have to experience it, and then when you understand it, and you’re in it, it runs its course. Now, this is separate from a true major depression where you can’t get up in the morning. That’s another story. But sadness is a normal part of life.

Dan:

In your clinical practice, how often would you say depression has played a role in why people have come to see you?

Carrie:

I think it plays a role often. The categories that we have in the DSM-5, I think they’re useful so that clinicians can communicate with others. But nobody is fully described by a category or diagnosis. There’s a lot of overlap. When people are depressed, they’re also often anxious and also stressed, and sometimes it’s more one than the other. But depression does come up a lot for people and it’s very painful. I think not being able to get up in the morning, not feeling like doing anything, not being able to enjoy the sunny day or the view of the water, or whatever else people are getting into, it makes you feel very separate and alone when you are depressed and other people around you are not.  So it has, kind of, a trickle-down effect, too.

Dan:

Why did you write the book, The Creativity Cure? I found it such an interesting book, a fascinating read. You wrote it with your husband who is a surgeon. Can you tell our audience why you wrote it?

creativity cure book

Carrie:

There are two things.  I talk about this now, I didn’t talk about this in the book, when I was a kid, I had some problems. I was depressed. I was anxious. We weren’t taking meds at that time. There was some chaos in my world.  I really had to find a way to survive. When I look back on it now, all those things that I recommend in my book are things I was doing, or trying to do, like using my hands. I would cook a lot. I would take long walks.  Then, later in my practice, maybe ten years ago, patients were saying, “You know, I went home and I fixed my sink and I became euphoric! I felt great!” I started to realize that meaningful hand use has a lot to do with happiness. And yet, because so much of what we do now is accomplished with a click on a device, we’re deprived of the process. And process, being deeply immersed in making, or making music, brings with it the possibility for euphoria, and satisfaction, and feeling good about living. So creativity is really about a way to have an optimal life. How you define creativity is another matter.

Dan:

What’s going on in the body, in particular, the brain when someone is struggling with depression? And how does creative action interact with that?

Carrie:

I think a lot of studies have been done, and serotonin and neurotransmitters, there’s a depleted state, and that we need to boost it up with medication or activities that do the same. Vigorous exercise can create the same biological state that antidepressants can. I want to qualify this and say that one must see their physician and make an informed decision, but certainly exercise can help a lot. Also, meaningful hand use has been shown to boost mood. Dr. Kelly Lambert wrote a book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power, and she was the one who talked a lot about how purposeful hand use can affect brain chemistry and make people feel happier.

Dan:

What would be some examples of using your hands? When we think of creativity, many people might think of painting, for example. They might say to themselves, “Well, I’m not a good painter,” or “I don’t play an instrument.” But creativity isn’t really limited to that. Can you expand on that?

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Carrie:

Sure. I am so glad you asked that. I think this is the crucial question. And I think you hit the nail on the head. A lot of people say, “I’m not creative.” Well, first of all, I think we’re all born creative. It’s a matter of finding what you can do. It can be applied to business. You can be amazing. You could be a genius at figuring out what the team needs to be. That’s very creative. You could be an amazing cook. You could have a tremendous talent for decorating. Gardening, the design of a garden. It doesn’t have to be on a professional level. It’s really a matter of figuring out what you can get into. You may find that if you put some time into mastering a skill that you find a certain pleasure and freedom with it. That could be something like painting, but it doesn’t have to be. Knitting, crafting, it could even be fixing things. All of that involves meaningful hand use.

There are many definitions of creativity.  My definition of it is allowing most natural self to emerge to make a positive contribution. It’s allowing you a freedom, a spontaneity in the way that you live, a feeling of safety that allows you to do that so you’ll throw out an idea, you’ll say something funny in conversation, so that you are just yourself and it works. That’s really optimal living.

Dan:

You talked earlier about when you were younger and growing up having some difficult childhood experiences and learning some creative coping skills.  Myself, when I think about this, I had a very difficult childhood as well with an alcoholic, abusive father. Over time, I didn’t have what I would now think of as depression as a young adult. It developed more at midlife when I turned forty.  It seems that there’s a lot of research that suggests that when people in their childhoods have difficult experiences, either emotional abuse, or physical abuse, or deprivation, there’s some kind of linkup with adult-onset depression. Have you found you found that in your experience?

Carrie:

Yea, I think so. I think because in certain ways when you’re in your twenties and your thirties and you’re striving, and you’re distracted and you have a strong goal, that, in and of itself, that kind of commitment to a goal or emotion can stave off certain aspects of your memory or your inner life and it might get triggered in your forties.  Maybe when you have a little bit more time to contemplate or think back. I will say that there are certainly ways, I just like to not be falsely optimistic, but be really optimistic and really encourage people to understand that there are ways to look into your particular history, your particular form of depression, and work with it to get to a much better place at any age.

Dan:

In your book, you talk specifically about not only being creatively engaged, but the use of one’s hands, a physical activity, and how that somehow connects to creativity, no matter your history, or the causes of your depression. This seems to work for just about anybody with depression or unhappiness. Would you say that’s the case?

Carrie:

I do. I think it’s mild or moderate depression. I think if you have a very severe depression, you might need some medical intervention or an intense therapy. But what I like to say is that if you develop a creative habit, it’s very useful to fall back on it when you are depressed. You may not be able to master a new habit when you’re severely depressed, but if you’re mild to moderate, and you work on your knitting, or you work on your painting, or you go into the kitchen and you are inventive about your cooking, it really can shift mood, but not if you’re in a very crippled state. In a crippled state, you need to get to, sort of, a better place, and then use the creativity after that.

Dan:

You’re living in New York City, but you’re soon to be on the move. Tell us a little bit about that.

Carrie:

I’m very excited because I am going to be moving to Austin, Texas soon.  I’m going to be involved in, and working with the great people to try to develop a creativity/wellness program together. I’m not sure exactly, I haven’t submitted a proposal to them about human flourishing and aspects of human flourishing, but from my research, I outline 10 principles that are based on scientific research, but also on ancient philosophies that really help people with optimal living. Most of those are, actually, linked to creativity and linked to better health. So I’m really excited to get to work with people there.

Dan:

You actually have a website. Where can our podcast listeners and readers find you?

Carrie:

At carriebarronmd.com and we have a pretty active Facebook page has a wide following. People make lots of comments and have lots of pretty interesting things to say on that.  So that might be a place to look. And I do have an active Psychology Today blog. I try to keep it lighter for Facebook, kind of short for my website. On Psychology Today, I try to deal with deeper, more complicated issues, but try to be useful.

Dan:

Carrie, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today on this very important topic of depression and what we can do about it with creativity.  And we look forward to following your future work.  I hope everybody follows Carrie on her website and reads her blogs. This is Dan Lukasik from Lawyers with Depression. Join us next week for another interesting interview.

Liz Swados’ Journey Through Depression

If you’ve ever suffered from depression, you know what a dark muck it can be.  Helpless and hopeless, this deadened state leaves people at the bottom of a dank well with no ladder out.

I’ve gone through major depression.  I count myself one of the 20 million in this country so afflicted.  I’ve gotten to know so many fellow sufferers over the years.  One I didn’t get the chance to meet, to my great chagrin, was author, composter and Tony-nominated playwright Liz Swados.  We had a few things in common – we both grew up in Buffalo (she left for a theater career in NYC years ago and I’m still here), a lawyer connection (her dad was one and I’m currently one) and we both struggled with depression on and off during our lives.

elizabeth_swados

Sadly, Liz died on January 5, 2016  of cancer at the age of 64 before I had the chance to meet her.

If you not aware of Liz’s work, you should be.  She’s the author of the book, My Depression: A Picture Book.

The book is a memoir in words and pictures of Liz’s journey through depression that is by turns poignant and funny.  Through her whimsical drawings, readers get a unique view of the experience of depression: from the struggle to keep her condition a secret, to the strange effects of ‘new’ drugs, to the small things that can trigger relapses.  At its heart, it is a gentle reminder fellow sufferers are not alone and that they can lead a fulfilling and happy life.

She’s also the creator of the brilliant HBO animated film, “My Depression (The Up and Down of It)” that appeared last summer.

Here’s what Liz wrote about the film:

“It takes us through a journey from the beginning of a depression, through the darkest symptoms and searching a person can do to try to find a cure, to discovering small bits of light, be them from anything – chocolate, yoga, therapy, medications… We didn’t come to any brilliant conclusions; we just went by our instincts and experiences. We have been showing it to various audiences and have found that many people identify with it, which is a true pleasure because I wouldn’t want to represent something so sensitive in a wrong way. I’ve received emails and all kinds of communications from people telling me that they feel simpatico with me, and that’s the best: to give someone an identity and a way to be not alone in a very empty, difficult time of life. I think the most important part of the film is the humor. Depression may not be funny to live through, but if you look at it in a certain way, if you look at yourself and others as creatures under some silly dark spell, it can help lift the weight.”

It’s so hard to describe to others who have never been through depression what it’s really like.  It’s tough, I think, because they really don’t have a reference point.  They’ve been through sadness.  But depression isn’t sadness – it’s an illness.

Liz’s book and film have done a lot of good to help others understand and, hopefully, offer more love and support.

But it’s also is a powerful visual journey for those who suffer.  It gives voice to an experience that so often, in it’s most miserable manifestations, mutes that voice.

The voice of our truest and most vital selves.

And it does it all with a panache of humor.

Thanks for everything you’ve done Liz and rest in peace.

Can Creativity Help You Heal From Depression? An Interview With Carrie Barron, M.D.

Dan: Why did you write The Creativity Cure?

Carrie: I felt that the solutions out there for people with anxiety and depression were partial solutions, incomplete remedies. The way we live now causes stress for many people – the pace, the lack of rest or leisure, the relentless striving. Our technological, cerebrally focused culture has taken us out of our bodies and ourselves.  Addiction to devices causes an imbalance and a malaise. When you are tied to a device 24-7 you may not be experiencing the fullness of all 5 senses, the things that make you feel energized.  The primal satisfaction of making things and using the hands are slowly slipping away from us. For wellbeing, we have to make a conscious effort to maintain them. When my patients make and fix things, they feel better.  Research shows that manual effort and creativity are antidotes for malaise. The Creativity Cure was written to help people find another way.

Dan: I deal with lawyers with depression and other professionals that are on their phones and computers a lot. What kinds of things would you recommend that they do with their hands for physical?

Carrie:  It’s about getting out of your head.  There are many cerebrally oriented people, but “ I think therefore I am” (Descartes) may not be the answer in the current culture.  It is really becoming I think therefore I’m not. Too much thinking at the exclusion of physical and manual activity can make us depressed.  Physicality, creativity and using your hands – – cooking or washing cars or crafting, painting walls or using watercolors — honor anatomical intent.  Long ago manual action in everyday life was necessary for physical survival. Now we need these actions for psychological survival.

The need to create is primal. Paint a wooden board or do Legos with your child.  Do that thing you were always drawn and do it clumsily, imperfectly. You don’t have to have any experience as an artist or a maker of things.  You don’t have to have a fine result. You can just explore, begin and build. The beauty is in the inner experience.  Research has shown that meaningful hand use decreases depression.

Dan: In your book, write about the unconscious mind. What do you mean by that?

Carrie: The unconscious mind, the deepest most hidden layer of our mind  houses our ,  primal self, our instincts, our intuitions and our truth.  The unconscious is a treasure trove of clues about our natural self, our unique self.   We can get in touch with the deepest layer of our mind via dreams and seemingly random thoughts. Noting where our minds naturally drift helps us learn about where we need to be and what we need to do. The unconscious is a very powerful resource.

Dan: What is our unconscious trying to tell us for people who suffer with anxiety and depression?

Carrie:  Depression can have many different causes: biological, situational, genetic or hormonal. It can also be the result of trauma.  Self-knowledge and insight  – knowing what resides in your unconscious mind – helps with depression because as the saying goes, the truth sets us free.  Talking to a pastor or a mental health professional can elucidate information that moves you forward. Understanding yourself: who you really are, what your instincts are or what you are actually upset about is key for positive change. Sometimes you think your concern is one thing and your deeper self tells you that it is another. Following unconscious clues helps you live more truthfully and happily.

Dan: You mentioned “clues” from the unconscious. Can people that are dealing with anxiety and depression unearth these clues themselves? If a person did receive such clues, how would a person know, without talking to a therapist, know what to make of these clues?

Carrie: Writing is helpful. Keep a journal.  Take walks, try yoga, breathe, self-reflect, fiddle with paint, doodle, just let.  Important material bubbles up when your mind slows down. Be curious and wonder, “Who am I that I love that, what does this leaning say about me, how can I this passion be part of my regular life?” Paying attention to the feeling that accompanies certain thoughts can help you. Certain involvements can make you unhappy but they are habitual so you just keep on. Acknowledging your true inner responses enables you to change.  Breaking through denial is key.

Dan: In my work helping lawyers with burnout, anxiety and depression, many of them that seem to contact me are middle-aged. Do you find that a lot of the people, the clients you see are coming to you in midlife?

Carrie:  Yes, and midlife can be the best time of life. Loss and disruption, while initially causing depression or anxiety, can lead to positive inner transformation. If we learn to seek pleasure, solace or a feeling of elevation from friendships, family, creativity, and tending to those we love, we are empowered. If you are dependent on an outside institution for your self-esteem, you are less in control of your life and more vulnerable. Define yourself; don’t let it come from the outside.

Dan: I’d like to follow up on a point you make in your book when you talk about people not being in contact with their physical bodies and a visceral since of being alive.  I spoke recently with Richard O’Connor, a psychologist in New York City who wrote the book Undoing Depression. He said that depression really wasn’t really about the emotion of sadness – – but about the absence of all emotion. Is that something that you see with the depressed patients you treat?

Carrie: I think it was Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, who offered that beautiful juxtaposition: the opposite of depression is vitality  – – not happiness. That really captures it.

Dan: In your book you make a distinction. You indicated that The Creativity Cure is a good fit for people with mild to moderate depression anxiety, but maybe not major depression. Why?

Carrie: For those who suffer from major depression and feel that their depression is well managed, The Creativity Cure is a great option for finding more vitality.   Those who at baseline have mild to moderate depression and find that meds do not help enough can discover ways to unleash creativity and happiness in the book. It takes some motivation, but once you get going, you will have more energy and a greater number of happy moments.

Dan: What percentage of your patients would you say depression plays a role in their maladies for which they’re seeing you?

Carrie: Eighty percent.

Dan:  Wow – -that many. And to actually put The Creativity Cure into effect, how long do you generally work with somebody to get to the point where they can do it on their own?

Carrie: We start right away by finding out as much as we can about who that person is and what makes him or her feel alive.  We think about what is working and what is not, why certain choices were made and ways to redirect the self. Through the Five Part Prescription: Insight, Movement, Mind Rest, Using Your Own Two Hands and Mind Shift people can uncover their true leanings and find more vigor, inspiration, passion. For positive change, integrate the methods into your lifestyle over several weeks. Little steps! True change is all about a little at a time and building.

Dan: In your career as therapist, have you treated lawyers with depression?

Carrie: Yes, yes.

Dan: Have you found anything about their life style that contributes to their depression?

Carrie: I think its three things for lawyers, especially those in high-pressure positions. My client Marnie comes to mind.  She is a 28 year-old lawyer who has to give up her personal life at the drop of a hat when she is needed. It is tough.  Number one, she is often exhausted because 17 -hour days are not uncommon. Number two, there is a lack of autonomy because this 17 -hour day can be thrust upon her at anytime and continue for weeks. Marnie, professional, committed and with good attitude, has to be available in the moment, late nights, on weekends.

But, compliance takes a toll.  It makes her depressed to be in the office and not see sunlight. Not being in control of her time is hard. Even if the work is interesting, she has to give up other important involvements.  Marnie feels lonely and isolated because she has little opportunity to be with old friends or to develop new ones.  We are working on ways she can maintain friendships, even in text message or email shoot-outs if an in- the- flesh visit must be delayed.

Number three is that living in your head all the time, no matter how brilliant you are, is not healthy. Smart as a whip with facts and numbers, Marnie garners much more pleasure from aesthetics. She likes design but has not felt free enough to develop this interest. Colors, shapes, proportions  – thinking about these things makes her happy. It is a sensual, visual way of moving through the world.  A big part of the treatment is making her interest in design part of her ongoing life.

I think lawyers in general are really smart people who are great at using their minds. They have been reinforced for this all their lives, but for a richer, higher, happier state, many of these cerebral people need to get out of their heads and start using their hands. Go into a creative world. Balance mind, hands and body.

Dan: I have given many talks around the country on the topic of lawyer and one of the things I like to say is that lawyers have the most active fantasy lives of most professionals I’ve ever spoke to, where they dream of doing something else than lawyering. Can those be clues that would fit in with The Creativity Cure?

Carrie:  Fantasizing is a sign of mental health. It’s a good thing.  Learning about your inclinations through daydreams might lead you to change your life in a big way or make it better in small ways. Tiny steps allow for big changes because they foster consistency and this builds a new self in a solid way.  If you’re interested in learning how to make beautiful cupcakes you can do that for an hour on the weekend.  Play guitar, write poems, tend tomatoes in a vegetable garden and do it for a few minutes a day. Start small and make it part of you. Keep dreaming and keep doing. Contentment is about maintaining an identity that integrates your creative self.

Carrie Barron, M.D., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York City, an adjunct psychiatrist at Columbian-Presbyternian and author of the recently published book, “The Creativity Cure“.  Please check her insight blog at www.creativitycure.com.

 

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