In an east Toronto art studio, I sat among a group of people as they performed an original song about finding happiness after times of struggle. It was the end of a three-hour music workshop run by Creative Works Studio, a group that holds daily art classes for people living with mental illness or addiction issues, and the positivity from the class was evident.
To get into the group, which currently has an extensive waiting list, you must be referred to by a doctor. And while it may sound like an after school program, it provides real therapy in a form that eases the stigma often partnered with mental illness.
Art as therapy is hardly groundbreaking though, and finding ways to improve your mental health in times of need is something we all do, whether it's art, baking, going to the gym or chain smoking until we fall asleep.
Bernadette Wycks, one of the full time staff members at Creative Works Studio, said that it is empowering for her members to find an activity that lifts them out of the negative emotions mental illness brings. "To give people living with mental health issues a place to go allows them to develop life skills, but also to see themselves in a different way."
Inspired by the brave adults at Creative Works, I spoke with a bunch of people about the activities they do that improve their mental health on a daily basis—because, let's face it, we all need it.
I like dancing my face off. I think objectively, I'm a terrible dancer and I mean, just about everybody looks bad when they're dancing, but it's one of those things where you just have to own it and when you bring other people into it, you create a really good energy. I know life's not perfect and everyone gets upset sometimes; I get sad at times too. And sometimes if you just put on your favourite song and dance in your apartment by yourself, it's fun. Having fun with it is all that matters.
I started cross stitching a year ago as a way to calm myself down when I'm feeling really stressed because it's relaxing and repetitive...and you get cool stuff out of it at the end. I get really bad anxiety so it's something I do when I have anxiety attacks or when I'm feeling shitty in general. It [helps me] focus on something else. So far I've only done really, really big ones. I spent seven months on my last one; the world map for the Super Mario RPG video game.
Because I live by myself, whenever I go home there's this feeling of loneliness. Even if you're not lonely as a person, living by yourself just kind of hits you. I need some sort of activity that gets my heart rate up. So for the past three years, I've been working out almost five days a week. Whenever I go, I feel so much better about myself.
I mean, life is about growth, whether it's mental, spiritual or physical. When I work out, I get stronger than I was yesterday. At the same time, the fact that I make the commitment to go to the gym despite not always feeling like it, it builds me mentally as well.
For me, there's a difference between when I'm in crisis mode versus just generally feeling like shit. When in crisis mode, and it's kind of self-destructive, but I'll wind up chain-smoking. I'll call or text a friend or my mom and sit outside and smoke cigarettes until I feel a little bit calmer. When I'm feeling down on a daily basis, I usually just evaluate what's going wrong and try to fix it. I find, if my space is cluttered or messy, that's a huge contributor for me. So I wind up cleaning extensively. My main motivation is to not get down into something worse. I used to drink, I used to binge eat and sometimes I would binge and purge, so it is part of growing and eliminating those things from my life.
Fitness is the biggest thing for me so I usually go for runs three to five times a week and then I do cycling, boxing and weightlifting four times a week. It just clears my head a lot and it gives me my own time to sort through problems. I tend to be a worrier, so I stress about things that don't need to be stressed about — like plans that are four weeks out, or getting my friends to get together. It's needless worrying, so when I work out, I can let go of all that. It keeps my mental health in check. Without those workouts, I would be a different person.
The first thing I always do is check in with myself when I'm starting to feel a little overwhelmed or a little too emotional. Like, when did I last sleep? And what did I last eat and when? Because often I am hungry or exhausted and I tend to forget to do both. Once I double check those, I've started working out recently and [that] really helps keep me balanced. Or I like to do something creative. Or I play video games because they help me to disappear into a different world. Or I spend a lot of time with my cat.
Retail therapy. It puts me in a better mood. Being in my 20s, it's a time where I'm [supposed to] find myself, but I think finding yourself is very difficult and I tend to get lonely sometimes. I feel secluded and isolated so I go to the mall to buy things. It fills a void. I don't know what the void is, and maybe it'll fill up eventually with something other than a material item, but for now it makes me feel at ease and helps me forget about my problems.
I really like spending time with my dog outdoors. There's a few hiking trails around Toronto that I take him to. If there's a long weekend I will take an Airbnb trip out of town up to a cabin. There are a lot of 10 by 10 cabins that have no electricity, no nothing and it's pretty barebones. This weekend I'm biking out to Bowmanville, Ont. [with my dog]. It's an 80km trip and we're going to camp out there and bike back. It's calming, it's distressing and I get to think about things that aren't work-related or stress-related.
It's always just a matter of disconnecting. What tends to cause me anxiety is just that I'm connected to the outside world. So I'm really into flow state and the activities that turn your brain off where you go on autopilot. I write, I hoola hoop, I'm in a band so I'll sit and practice my instrument. I run every day just before work just to set my brain in motion. If I start doing something that I don't like doing, like running, [I can focus]. There has not been one day where five minutes into that hour I didn't want to crawl up in bed and cry and not be there. But that's when your mind starts to wander.
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