Stress reduced with art-making

A new study suggests that creating art can reduce stress levels regardless of a person's artistic skill.

Published in the journal Art Therapy, the study found that just 45 minutes of art creation - such as making clay models or drawing - reduced levels of the hormone cortisol.

Although the researchers from Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions believed that past experience in creating art might amplify the activity's stress-reducing effects, their study found that everyone seems to benefit equally.

"It was surprising and it also wasn't," said Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor of creative arts therapies. "It wasn't surprising because that's the core idea in art therapy: Everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting. That said, I did expect that perhaps the effects would be stronger for those with prior experience."

For their study, the researchers enrolled 39 adults aged 18-59 years to a 45-minute art-making session.

Materials available to the participants included markers and paper, modeling clay and collage materials. There were no directions given and every participant could use any of the materials they chose to create any work of art they desired. An art therapist was present during the activity to help if the participant requested any.

The team notes that around half of the participants reported little experience in creating art.

Before and after the art-making session, researchers took saliva samples from each participant, which they used to measure cortisol levels.

The researchers identified a reduction in cortisol levels among 75 percent of the participants, indicating a reduction in stress. This finding remained even after accounting for participants' experience of art-making.

Written testimonies of their experiences afterward revealed how the participants felt about the creating art.

"It was very relaxing," one wrote. "After about five minutes, I felt less anxious. I was able to obsess less about things that I had not done or need [ed] to get done. Doing art allowed me to put things into perspective."

Additionally, the team found some evidence that younger participants were more likely to experience a reduction in cortisol during art-making than older subjects.

Kaimal says one explanation for this finding might be that younger individuals are still identifying ways to manage stress and deal with day-to-day challenges, while older people - having had more life experience - may have found better ways to deal with stress.

Overall, the researchers say their findings suggest art-making may be an effective way to reduce stress, and they plan to investigate this association further in future studies.

"We want to ultimately examine how creative pursuits could help with psychological well-being and, therefore, physiological health, as well," adds Kaimal.

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