So for Christmas this year, my sister requested a homemade French rolling pin. Amid what I have affectionately called “procrastination-December,” I jumped at the opportunity to learn something new and although I have been dabbling in pyrography and wood-restoration, I knew it was definitely going to require lots of YouTube instructional videos, Etsy comparisons, and craft websites.
Important note: I had no idea what a French rolling pin was.
Creative expression has always been part of my life, and I rely on it heavily to “complete the stress cycle” – a term coined by authors and researchers Amelia & Emily Nagoski. In practical terms, my house is filled with dozens of unfinished projects – all with the “intention” of being completed at one point or another. After countless conversations with my husband and avoiding making eye contact with these Misfit Projects, I felt somewhat validated when I found articles concerning the mental health benefits of creative expression, including the impact directly on our brains, such as increasing blood flow to the medial prefrontal cortex (translation: the reward center) and experiences in the “flow state” (Gharib, 2020).
According to the Nagoskis’ powerful book, Burnout (2020), external and internal stressors such as work pressure, cultural expectations, experiences of discrimination, self-criticism, mental illness, and trauma result in a physical (neurological and physiological) shift – defined here as stress. Some of these include heightened senses, high blood pressure, muscle tension, increased alert, endorphins, and narrowing of memory function. These stressors and the resulting stress are natural and often very healthy, but that does not mean they do not have the potential to do long-term damage to our mental and physical well-being. Basically, what this means is that unless we give our physical bodies signals that the stressor is over, unavoidable, or out of our control it maintains in a state that makes it incredibly difficult to relax and shift our stressed mindset.
Burnout outlines several research-proven activities that assist in completing our stress cycle, including physical activity, positive social interaction, crying, laughter, affection, and creative expression. Different stressors call for different methods to work through reactions, and I have found each of these to be incredibly beneficial when I find myself unable to relax my shoulders, slow my heartbeat, escape the negative mental spiral of “what-ifs,” and a variety of other recognizable symptoms that display my stress reaction.
Okay, back to this whole French rolling pin thing. Often, when I I get an idea in my head, I find it difficult to let it go – this can sometimes get me into multiple kinds of trouble. Practically, this has led to a bin of unused yarn (after many failed attempts of knitting hats that turned into pointed awkward baby-hats), scraps of wood with half-drawn landscapes (pyrography projects that I can’t bring myself to finish), and a mostly-built bench for the back deck (long story). Like many of us, I have mainly found myself leaping headfirst down these rabbit holes since COVID rocked my/our world(s) but have also seen immense benefits of time spent working on projects, learning/trying to learn new skills, and being inspired through art. I have realized that if I want to create something, even without the expensive machinery or large workspace, I can use basic tools and techniques to attempt my best (you’re welcome, Ace Hardware).
Creative expression impacts us neurologically no matter the form, whether through song or dance, learning an instrument, doodling in a notebook, coloring mantras (lots of research behind the benefits of this one!), Paint-By-Number, building, or in my case: pyrography and woodworking. According to a research study published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association (2020), engaging the creative aspect of our minds has been seen to (1) imagine a more hopeful future, by being “able to imagine possibilities and see a future beyond the present moment” (2) activate the medial prefrontal cortex through increased blood flow, resulting in a feeling of reward and increasing resiliency, (3) impact cortisol levels – the hormone that helps the body respond to stress, and (4) increase focus by inducing the “flow state” that encourages the mind and body to be present, relaxed, and reflective.
And per usual, I am avoiding the task at hand – this Godforsaken French rolling pin. I decided to make it out of various pieces of hardwoods, use (way too much) glue to fasten them together, and after cutting to the appropriate length, learned how to chisel. At the end of the day, I have absolutely loved the hours I spent learning a new skill. After a few cuts on the hands, mistakes to sand out, and many episodes of 30 Rock later, the end result is a generally round device my sister will (hopefully) use to make delicious pasta. Yes, the project worked out, but man, are there so many that haven’t in my house! Nonetheless, the process of making something, using my hands, and creative expression has given me agency, helped relax my mind and body, and more than anything: complete the never-ending stress cycle.