Creative thinking for military minds
From various sources
Military life as we all know can be very stressful, both for yourself and your family. We are trained to deal with unexpected circumstances, last-minute timings, and to get the job done in the face of adversity. One day you’re at home with your family in Trenton, and the next day you’re on deployment in Kuwait — nothing is the same except the few people you’re going over with. Despite the “normality” of the turbulent life that all military members lead, sometimes there isn’t a balanced focus on daily activities that can help the troops unwind and cope with the daily stress. There are mental health briefings talking about coping with stress, fitness is emphasized as an outlet for stress, and there are great events such as sports days and military family days that help military members to unwind and connect with each other out of the workplace. Unfortunately, the availability of clubs and other activities that don’t revolve around the mess or the gym varies dramatically from base to base. Most bases have mandatory fitness programs; for example at RMC if you aren’t on any of the varsity sports teams then you must play intramural sports with your squadron.
However, the same emphasis that is placed on physical health isn’t placed on creative pursuits, and that should change. Physical and mental health are tremendously important aspects of life in the CAF, and being creative plays a large part in both aspects. The ability to think creatively (and destress while doing it) has significant health benefits, and dramatically can improve morale and the health of the team as a whole. By emphasizing participation in creative hobbies, many medical issues can be lessened and not become career-altering problems. Creativity also helps improve problem solving skills, which is a crucial skill in any job in the CAF. One veteran that knows all too well how effective creativity can be is Dana Batho. She was a RCAF intelligence officer, and was medically released Aug 2015 because of a training accident — she suffered a neck and shoulder injury that has progressively gotten worse and disabled her. She says, “even for veterans and those being released, being creative can pay huge dividends — having gone through the release process myself recently with an OSI, I can say that the only thing that prevented me from completely cracking up and needing to be heavily medicated was my creativity and my hobbies.” Before her injury Dana had exhibited her art in several countries, and had done custom oil paintings of General Wolfe and Joseph Brant for her squadron lounge while a cadet at RMC.
Doing any hobby can have significant and measurable positive effects on mental health, whether it’s just to relax a bit from a normal day at work or whether it’s to cope with a diagnosed mental health condition. Hobbies can act as a moving meditation — breathing slows down, the heart rate slows, and the mind is focused without stress. This state of calm focus releases endorphins, which can alleviate pain and trigger a sense of pleasure similar to morphine. Over time engaging in hobbies can literally “re-wire” your brain so you become calmer and happier. The benefits of facilitated art therapy are well-known and documented, but there is less awareness of how simple hobbies can have the same (or greater) benefits to physical and mental health.
Physical health can also improve because of hobbies. Depending on the hobby, you may get more physically active, such as cycling or gardening. The endorphins released can impact pain management, and can result in less medication being needed. Hobbies can also help to break through limitations created by physical injuries or illnesses as you can adapt a hobby around your limitations or choose a new hobby to try. As Dana said, “I had given up painting and drawing as physically moving my arm and shoulder to draw, turning my neck to look at reference images, mix paint, etc was just too painful. I had given up my favourite crafts of knitting and crochet as I can’t move my upper body very well anymore, and I can’t look down. Not being able to do hobbies and art I’d done for my whole life sent me further into a depression. Then I discovered ArtRage, an app and desktop software that mimics real art media very accurately. I can prop my tablet up against my knees as I’m reclining and draw just using my wrist, and I can zoom in and out, have digital reference images pinned to the drawing so I don’t have to move my head, etc. The resurrected ability to create was incredibly profound for me — it was like I hadn’t lost completely everything because of my accident.”
Dana continued her explanation of how creativity has helped her. “Once I started creating art again, I explored other ways I could still create and maybe even help others create. I rediscovered cross stitching, something I had learned from my Mum when I was a child. I made an adapted stitching frame that was really simple to do, but has allowed me to stitch reclined with my neck supported. With the frame, I don’t need to move my head or my arms at all to stitch, just my wrists. I also realized that with the help of software such as MacStitch/WinStitch, I could convert my art into patterns that others could stitch. I am much more interested in empowering others to create for themselves than I am just selling prints of my art to be displayed. I even started a YouTube channel to help teach people how to cross stitch. It’s the easiest embroidery form to learn, literally if you can make an X with thread and count to ten you can learn to cross stitch. I wanted to help others learn the joy of stitching and of bringing creativity into their lives. I’ve even done a video about “manbroiderers” (men who stitch), I think it’s great seeing all kinds of people try stitching that may have never thought of it before. Many people think they aren’t creative enough for certain types of hobbies or to be artistic, but crafts such as cross stitch allow you to create a beautiful object without being an artist as you’re given step-by-step instructions. And there are so many fun modern patterns out there these days, it’s no longer just country chicken and fluffy bunny patterns.”
While reaching out to others who have been positively affected by creativity, Dana spoke to some other serving members and veterans. This is how hobbies have helped them:
Nathalie: “I have started painting and colouring, which is a great way to occupy your hands and gives you something to focus on while spending time in the company of others.”
Jeff: “I participated in a soapstone carving group for PTSD – I found the act of being creative with your hands very calming. There was also directed conversation about PTSD, but I feel using your hands was the most important part.”
Ryan: “I build, paint, and play tabletop games with scale models. Not only does it let me be creative but it also lets me exercise the faculties the army no longer employs me to use.”
Sam: “I have been writing poetry in my mid-teens but for whatever reason I stopped before age 18. Now in my 30s I have picked it up again as part of therapy to get things off my chest and use as an outlet for any pain, and perhaps give someone else hope.”
Jo-Anne: “I love doing crafts: crocheting, card making, cooking, baking. Also kayaking in the summer, yoga all year long, yard work etc. Also, puzzles: jigsaw and sudoku.”
Christine: “I’m all about the knitting. It’s a great way to wind down at the end of the day and, now that I have sausage hands with the pregnancy, it helps keep the swelling down. It’s great making things for my daughter and how happy and proud she is to wear stuff mommy made her. In fact, she gets upset if her knitted clothes are in the wash. Sometimes I have to force myself to put a few lines in because I’m in a mood, but it does calm me down.”
Adele: “I’ve always been a big crafter. I started with cross stitch, which incidentally my dad taught me. I also knit and crochet. For me, having a creative project that I can see growing and then the finished results gives me a sense of accomplishment. This was especially true when my anxiety and depression was really bad. Creating something, no matter what format it takes, gives the mind a positive focal point. With so much focus on the medical healing behind all of our injuries, whether mental or physical, I think we sometimes forget to play. And by that I mean just do something fun for ourselves. Like I said, for me, even when I could barely get out of bed, creating something, anything gave me a sense of myself back (even if was just a little bit). I could look at a scarf, or a canvas or a pot and say ‘See Adele, you can do something. You can create something beautiful and unique.’ Those voices that are telling you you aren’t good enough, CAN’T be good enough….they’re wrong.”
Angela: “My injuries have created quite a little Perfect Storm which has affected not only my physical health but my mental health & abilities as well. Because of this, it has been a huge struggle to find something to keep this ol’ noggin’ of mine preoccupied/busy/entertained. Physically, a lot of my old hobbies have gone the wayside (sports, etc.) so I’ve really had to go back to my old ways in the musical/artistic world. Playing the sax was getting too hard on my body, so I took a leathercraft course. The drive alone to get to the course nearly killed me but IT WAS FUN and I loved the creativity behind it. I’ve slowly begun rebuilding my art supply collection, and try to draw, paint, bead, colour… whatever strikes my fancy. Am I good at it? No, but it doesn’t matter, because it is fun. It proves that I’m still trying and I haven’t given up, it makes me happy in the moment (despite the pain/misery/whatever that’s going on), and emotionally it helps bring me back into the land of the living.”
Woodrow: “I fell into a hobby by accident. I always did woodworking but when my son was just 4 (now 26) a neighbour gave him a packet of seeds. I decided to build a small garden for him, well that small garden grew to be quite large. I’ve moved several times since but the gardening stayed. There is no pressure, I’m busy, relaxed and can think clearly. I now manage a vineyard and winery, yes that can be stressful at times but when working with the plants is still relaxing. I also started a vegetable garden and have built many flower gardens on the property. Without these things in my life I think I would be lost. For those physically disabled you can use elevated gardens to make it easier.”
Rick: “Hand cycling and administering a page for first responders helps to keep my mind busy and from wandering.”
Bruce: “Just before retiring I did a hobby taxidermy course, and now it is a business. This has sent me to the top of the mountains and to the bottom of the sea at the same time. I have been confused, demoralized and I still get up and carry on as if I were normal. This is serious for me, it’s potentially my lifesaver when I think that life is lost. Time often flies when involved in the details of the work. But the reward in having left my mark, that the items I created or recreated are things that may be passed by at least one generation is extremely gratifying. The ‘job well done’ and ‘it’s better than I expected’ is always gratifying. This has a major impact on my day-to-day survivability & functionality.”
Dan: “I was a professional musician before I joined the military. When I was released 3B because of service related injuries, I started teaching guitar for free to under privileged kids. It helped me to feel useful and that I was making a contribution to people who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford it. I still do it and it has been a joy.”
Terry: “Hobbies have been a big part of my life. I like guitar, karaoke, photography…but my favourite funnily enough is making sausage. I look at it as a hobby but also make a bit of a profit from it. Between my Dad and I we made 320 pounds of smoked garlic sausage this past Christmas. Took us 3 weekends in row. I feel hobbies are very beneficial towards our pursuit of mental health. Every one of us should have a hobby.”
Heather: “I have always used art to destress. After I left the military I taught art classes for 13 years. My counsellor asked me to keep a written journal of my feelings but since I hate to write out my feelings, I decided to keep an art journal. It’s great because my artwork does not have to be perfect or even make sense.”
And a final word about how hobbies have helped Dana: “I know personally the huge emotional and physical benefits I have gotten from being creative, and I want others to learn the same skills. Without these skills, I would not have been able to make it through the past few years. Dealing with an injury that has slowly gotten worse and increasingly limits what I can physically and mentally do has been intensely difficult to cope with. As well, the process of being medically released from the CAF and starting a new life has been incredibly difficult, and I’m still learning to cope. Creativity and my hobbies has been my only outlet, and I’d love to encourage others to develop their ‘creativity without limitations.'”
More information about Dana and her journey, as well as her designs and tutorials can be found at https://handylittlegadget.ca. Her current cross stitch patterns can be seen at https://handylittlegadget.ca/shop.
Bruce Given, Action Taxidermy (Camrose, Alberta): https://www.facebook.com/ActionTaxidermy/
Terry F. Malchuk, sausage maker (Abbotsford, BC): https://www.facebook.com/groups/256821004482047