As the father of a 9-year-old, I know that nothing brings my daughter more joy than making art, expressing herself creatively, or performing "Musical.ly" with a group of her peers. Unfortunately, as adults, our participation in arts-based activities generally falls to the bottom of our priority list. Most of us (myself included) probably don't make an effort to participate in creative writing groups or sing in the local choir. But we should, according to a new study which found that choir singing and creative writing enhance emotion regulation for both healthy adults and those suffering from mental health conditions. These findings were published July 18 in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology.
The researchers found that all study participants who participated in arts-based groups reported a significant increase in positive emotions along with a decrease in negative emotions during and immediately after an arts-based activity. Notably, adults with chronic mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders (SUD) also derived emotional benefits in comparison to a control group of healthy adults. The researchers conclude: "The clear demonstration of positive emotional effects produced through participation in arts-based groups in the community has implications for mental health practice and policy.”
Genevieve Dingle of the University of Queensland School of Psychiatry, who is the lead author of this study, described the findings in a statement: "People with chronic mental health conditions tend to experience difficulties with emotion perception and regulation, which can have a big impact on their social relationships. These symptoms are not well treated with medication or psychotherapy. The findings of this study are exciting because they clearly show the potential for participation in arts-based groups to influence emotions and emotion regulation in positive ways.”
Having an arts-based activity scheduled on the calendar appeared to provide a focal point in the day and was something that study participants looked forward to during the week. Doing something arts related with others as a group also brought hedonic pleasure and eudaimonic reward based on individual achievements and those of the collective.
From a psychophysiology perspective, previous research has found that choir singing benefits the autonomic nervous system by reducing "fight-or-flight" stress responses and increasing vagal tone (VT) of the vagus nerve. More specifically, a 2011 study, “Cardiac and Respiratory Patterns Synchronize between Persons during Choir Singing,” reported that interpersonal oscillatory couplings resulted in phase synchronization in both respiration and increased heart rate variability (HRV) while singing and afterward.
In the July 2017 study, Dingle and colleagues report that art-based groups provided social support. This is consistent with the theoretical concept that distracting someone from negative rumination about his or her life by shifting focus to positive stimuli in a social context can improve emotion regulation in depression. These findings dovetail with the recent trend of "social prescribing" in which a link worker creates a non-medical prescription of community-based activities tailored to fit a person's lifestyle and individual needs.
From a clinical perspective, the latest research suggests that participation in arts-based groups can improve subjective well-being for people from all walks of life. Whether or not you are currently experiencing mental health issues, scheduling time on your weekly calendar to create some type of art in the presence of others is likely to enhance your emotion regulation and boost positive emotions through individual and interpersonal processes.
To find a community-based writing group in your vicinity, check out this List of Writing Groups by State or Region resource guide. ChoirMeetups provides an international registry of local choirs that sing various genres of music and can help you locate a singing group in your area that fits your preferences. Both of these services are free.
Dingle, G. A., Williams, E., Jetten, J. and Welch, J. (2017), Choir singing and creative writing enhance emotion regulation in adults with chronic mental health conditions. Br J Clin Psychol. DOI: 10.1111/bjc.12149
Müller, Viktor, and Ulman Lindenberger. "Cardiac and respiratory patterns synchronize between persons during choir singing." PloS one 6, no. 9 (2011): e24893. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0024893
Suzanne Moffatt, Mel Steer, Sarah Lawson, Linda Penn, Nicola O'Brien. "Link Worker social prescribing to improve health and well-being for people with long-term conditions: qualitative study of service user perceptions." BMJ Open 2017;0:e015203. DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-015203