Can Creativity Help You Heal Depression? An Interview with Psychiatrist, Dr. Carrie Barron

Dr. Carrie Barron is a board-certified psychiatrist on the Columbia College of Physicians an Surgeons clinical faculty 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 stress level has increased 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 believe, especially for children, we’re in a striving, ambitious,  productive time mentality – for children and adults. We need to play, we need to hang out, 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?

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 challenging, and it’s appropriate not only to have it but also to let yourself have it. Sometimes, moving towards the authentic feeling, rather than running away from it, makes it go away. You first have to experience it, and then when you understand it and are 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. I believe the categories we have in the DSM-5 are helpful 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 stressed, and sometimes, it’s more one than the other. But depression does come up a lot for people, and it’s excruciating. 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 Creativity Cure? I found it such an exciting and fascinating read. You wrote it with your husband, who is a surgeon.

Carrie:

There are two things.  I talk about this now; I didn’t talk about this in the book, but 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 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 said, “You know, I went home and fixed my sink and became euphoric! I felt great!” I realized 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. Being deeply immersed in making music brings the possibility for euphoria, 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 there’s a depleted state of serotonin and neurotransmitters, and 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 limited to that. Can you expand on that?

Carrie:

I am so glad you asked that. 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 unique. You could be a genius at figuring out what the team needs to be. That’s very creative. You could be a fantastic cook. You could have a tremendous talent for decorating. Gardening is the design of a garden. It doesn’t have to be on a professional level. It’s a matter of figuring out what you can get into. If you spend some time mastering a skill, you may find a particular pleasure and freedom. That could be something like painting, but it doesn’t have to be. Knitting, crafting, and even fixing things. All of that involves meaningful hand use.

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

Dan:

You talked earlier about when you were younger and growing up, having some harrowing childhood experiences, and learning some creative coping skills.  When I think about this, I had a tough 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 in 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, physical abuse, or deprivation, there’s some linkup with adult-onset depression. Have you found that in your experience?

Carrie:

Yeah, I think so. I guess because, in specific ways, when you’re in your twenties and thirties, and you’re striving, you’re distracted. You have a firm goal that, in and of itself, that kind of commitment to a goal or emotion can stave off certain aspects of your memory or inner life, which might get triggered in your forties.  Maybe when you have more time to contemplate or think back, I will say that there are specific ways; I like not to be falsely optimistic, but be optimistic and 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 also 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 very severe depression, you might need some medical intervention or intense therapy. But what I like to say is that if you develop a creative habit, it’s beneficial 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. 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.

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Subscribe to LWD

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,843 other subscribers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *

Built by Staple Creative

%d bloggers like this: