Everyone gets stressed sometimes. Dealing with disappointments or unforeseen difficulties is a natural part of life that we handle by developing coping mechanisms, like calling a friend after a bad day at work or journaling to consolidate and review a hectic week. But too much stress without adequate coping skills can negatively affect your health and prevent you from living a fulfilling daily life. How can you handle stress? Science suggests that art might be one way to kick stress to the curb.
First, it’s important to understand that not all stress is bad. Certain levels of the biological stress marker cortisol are healthy and can help play a part in regulating your internal body clock. In the morning, for example, levels of cortisol are typically higher than they are at midday or in the evening. Scientists think this rise in cortisol is actually a positive stressor that urges you to get up in the morning instead of sleeping away the day. But what happens when your stress rises beyond healthy levels? What can you do to diminish excess stress in your day?
This is where the arts come in. Researchers at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions hypothesized that engaging in free form art therapy in which materials are provided but otherwise no instruction is given could act as an effective stress-relieving outlet for participants. To measure the individuals’ stress levels, researchers analyzed samples of their saliva before and after creating art and asked them to complete a short survey describing their experience following the experiment. The results confirmed that the researchers’ assumptions were right; after creating for just forty-five minutes, three out of four participants showed distinctly lowered levels of cortisol.
Although the results of the experiment were in line with researchers’ hypothesis, there were still some surprises in their findings that have a greater significance beyond this study. For one, researchers tentatively anticipated that people with greater experience creating art would experience the greatest reduction in cortisol levels. It’s easy to see where this prediction is coming from; for example,practicing meditation yields greater benefits the more often you do it. However, researchers found no correlation between previous skill and experience in contrast with participants who admitted little to no art background.
This finding is great news for the vast majority of us who may have taken an art class in high school or who still doodle throughout long meetings at work, but have never created art with the intention to show or sell it. One of the many therapeutic benefits of art, which is already considered one form of therapeutic treatment, is that it allows you to express yourself without speaking. When you’re not worried about using the right words or how others will judge what you’re saying, you are free to be more genuine in your expressions and even delve into feelings you may otherwise avoid or ignore.
While there’s no way for you to avoid stress entirely, you can use it to your advantage and harness its energy to create meaningful artistic expressions. No matter what life throws at you, remember that you can get through it with friends by your side and a paintbrush in your pocket.