Activities you find enjoyable ― whether they’re new hobbies, sports, socializing or spending time in nature ― are often called “restorers,” which are ways to recover from stress and difficult life decisions. The idea is that restorers might give you a sense of protection or relaxation, which can increase positive emotions and have both physical and mental health implications. Generally, creativity and well-being work hand in hand, affecting happiness, mood and engagement.
A July 2023 poll by the American Psychiatry Association found that Americans who engage in creative activities at least once a week report better mental health compared to people who didn’t do creative activities as often.
Creative activities don’t just have mental health benefits, either. They may also play a role in morbidity and mortality, weight distribution, blood pressure and other physical qualities.
Below are the five creative activities the study found helped the most people relieve stress:
Listening To Music
Music listening is one of the most popular leisure activities, and 77% of participants in the APA poll reported listening to music to relieve stress and anxiety.
Listening to music you find enjoyable can balance the amygdala, or the part of your brain that regulates emotions. This part of your brain is sensitive to music that is perceived as pleasant or joyful.
“There are positive associations between listening to music and well-being through learning to manage one’s emotions, taking a break from problems and making it easier to connect to others who share a similar passion for a musical style or group,” said Dr. Howard Liu, an adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
A 2022 study by the Graduate University of Mongolia found that pop, metal, rock, Western classical music and Chinese traditional music have a positive correlation between a person’s mental health and daily behavior. The study also found listening to hip-hop and rap can promote cultural identity, inspiring listeners to connect with others and make a difference in their community.
Along with mental benefits, music can also reduce pain, improve posture and movement, and decrease agitation associated with illness. Even if you’re not actively listening, having background music reduces levels of anxiety and distress, and increases relaxation.
Nearly 40% of the APA study respondents said that solving puzzles helped reduce stress. Puzzle games enhance the function of the prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in cognitive functions such as thinking, decision-making, concentration and problem-solving.
Crossword puzzles can also expand your vocabulary, stimulate thinking, boost confidence, and fasten your learning capacity, according to a 2021 study by the Department of Pharmacology in Ananta Institute of Medical Sciences & Research Centre in India.
A 2022 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine looked at how solving puzzles affected adults ages 62 to 80 years old with mild cognitive impairment.
“They were asked to do moderately difficult crossword puzzles four times a week for thirty minutes and compared to a control group that did other online cognitive exercises,” Liu told HuffPost. “The result was that in the puzzle-solving group, there was a measurable decrease in brain shrinkage, which might reduce the risk of further cognitive decline.”
Solving puzzles also might give you a feeling of accomplishment, which can increase positive emotions and decrease anxiety, depression and stress, according to the PERMA model of happiness, a psychological method for happiness.
Singing Or Dancing
Twenty-five percent of people in the APA poll listed singing and dancing as creative activities that relieve stress and anxiety.
“Activities such as singing and dancing are transformational because they enable us to process a variety of emotions either by providing a safe outlet for their expression or their release,” said Gayle Berg, a licensed psychologist at the New York State Psychology Association and founder of Psychological Solutions, based in New York. “Engaging in them not only provides a ‘shift’ in one’s attention and focus but changes one’s physiological state providing a necessary respite from the stress and distress of life’s challenges.”
Group singing was found to help the cognitive health and well-being of older adults and those with mental health problems, lung disease, stroke and dementia. Additionally, synchronized movement during live music activates memory and perception.
“Physical activity releases natural endorphins, which serve to elevate mood and help us to feel good,” Berg told HuffPost. “Hobbies function in a similar way. They engage us in the here and now, enabling us to momentarily escape life’s problems in order to pursue something we enjoy doing and derive pleasure from.”
Drawing, Painting Or Sculpting
You may have heard of art therapy as a mode of expression and communication in the treatment of mental illness. This non-verbal therapy can play a role in alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, which might be one of the reasons why 24% of people in the APA poll listed the activity as a way they relieve stress.
Drawing, painting or sculpting can be used to express anxiety, fear, and vent any negative emotions, especially for children, Liu said.
“Primarily, they help patients express themselves in a way that words cannot always capture,” he explained. “As a child psychiatrist, I know many kids and teens who struggle to speak up in therapy, but who can draw and express their emotions, inner world, and struggles through pen or marker and paper.”
Creating art fosters work planning and execution as well as self-sufficiency. Generally, participating in any form of self-expression can help people cope with stress, heal emotional trauma, and establish self-reflection techniques.
Even if you think you can’t draw, allowing yourself to express your thoughts or ideas can be beneficial. “Creating a regular outlet for this self-expression through visual arts, sculpting, can help them find emotional language of expression,” Liu said.
Journaling is a widely used tool in mental health treatment for a reason. Writing can be therapeutic, especially when using poetic and creative language as a form of expression, which accounted for 16% of people in the poll.
“Writing can include creative writing, poetry, journaling, and autobiographical writing,” said Vaile Wright, the American Psychology Association’s senior director of health care innovation. “People have looked at writing down negative events and how they dealt with it. People have looked at writing down positive events with similar effect. The idea is about making meanings. How do we use storytelling and narrative to understand our emotions and to increase our self-efficacy?”
Creative writing is just one of the few creative activities that could benefit your mental health, and might already be incorporated into your lifestyle. Generally, any activity that you take the time to partake in outside of your daily routine can improve your mental and physical well-being.
“Creative activities are healthy distractions when we’re feeling distressed,” Wright told HuffPost. “What’s most important is the intentionality behind it. Really give yourself permission and recognize that this is a priority to our emotional well-being. Really allow yourself to enjoy that time without feeling guilty.”