By Tom Jacobs
(Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the Pacific Standard Magazine.)
With tension and fear dominating the nightly news, it’s fair to assume that stress levels are high for a lot of people right now. New research suggests a simple way to lower them: Take a few minutes out of your day and make some art.
A research team led by Drexel University’s Girija Kaimal reports that, in a small-scale study, “a brief experience of art making produced physiological changes in most participants.” This measurable shift, which reflected a lowering of stress levels, was found in experienced artists and novices alike.
Previous studies have found both expressive writing and painting have produced positive physiological changes in people under intense stress (post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers and patients awaiting bone-marrow transplants respectively). But can those of us who are simply coping with the depressing state of the world get similar relief?
To find out, Kaimal and her colleagues recruited 39 students, staff, and faculty members for an experiment. Eighteen of them reported having “limited prior experience with art making,” while 13 had some experience, and eight had extensive experience.
All began by giving a small saliva sample. They then “were invited to make art using collage materials, modeling clay, and/or markers.”
“Participants were told that they had the option of creating any kind of imagery using the three media choices individually or in combination,” the researchers write. “They were also told that there was no expectation of creating a final artwork.”
After engaging with the materials for about 45 minutes, the participants wrote a few words about the experience, and finally gave another saliva sample. The researchers examined before-and-after levels of cortisol, the hormone most commonly used as a stress marker.
The results showed “cortisol levels were lowered after art making for approximately 75 percent of the sample,” the researchers report. “Cortisol levels stayed unchanged or were elevated for about 25 percent.”
“Changes in cortisol level were seen across demographic characteristics, and were not related to age, gender, or race/ethnicity,” they add. Somewhat surprisingly, they “were also unrelated to participants’ prior experiences with art,” or whichever medium they decided to work in.
The written responses to the experience were quite positive. “Some referred to it as relaxing,” Kaimal and her colleagues write. “Others referred to it as being fun and enjoyable, a form of distraction, and a reminder of childhood.”
Importantly, such positive evaluations were also offered by the minority whose cortisol levels were not lowered. The researchers speculate that 45 minutes might not have been sufficient time for them to register a physiological response. Alternatively, perhaps for them “art making resulted in a state of arousal and/or engagement,” which is hardly a bad thing.
While the inconsistency of responses suggests the need for follow-up research, “this is the first study to demonstrate lowering of cortisol levels after a short session of art making, structured to be similar to an art-therapy situation,” Kaimal and her colleagues conclude.
Their results suggest that engaging in a short burst of creative activity has measurable physical benefits, even if you’re no master artist. So if you need to lower your stress, don’t hesitate to take a break?—?but rather than grabbing a cup of coffee, reach for a chunk of clay.