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Art As Self-Care

The health benefits of creating and enjoying art.

Katie Willard Virant
Source: Katie Willard Virant

A few months ago, I read a study reporting that cortisol (a stress-related hormone) lowers significantly after just 45 minutes of making art (Kaimal, Ray & Muniz, 2016). Intrigued, I bought watercolor supplies and started painting. While I haven’t had my cortisol levels tested, I can tell you that I feel relaxed, engaged, and happy when I paint. It’s another “stress-buster” that I’ve added to my arsenal, and one that I highly recommend.

Those of us living with chronic illness face disease-related challenges every day. These challenges can make our lives unpredictably rocky, elevating our stress level and increasing our vulnerability to physical and mental health issues. If art can reduce stress, shouldn’t we be utilizing it as a coping strategy? I outline some benefits below.

Art enhances self-knowledge and self-expression.

When we’re creating art, we are making decisions about what we like. What colors appeal to us? Which shapes are we drawn to? What textures do we enjoy? You may think you don’t have any opinions on these questions, but you do! To make art is to make choices; to make choices necessitates paying attention to our inner selves as we assess which elements do and do not please us.

Not only are we tuning in to ourselves when we create art, but we also are expressing ourselves by making an external representation of our internal world. In doing so, we are acting upon a healthy belief that what is inside of us is worthy of taking up space and being seen by others.

Self-knowledge and self-expression are particularly important for people living with chronic illness. Chronic illness changes our identity: The person we become living with illness is different from the person we were before getting sick. It’s easy to feel lost, wondering who we are and how to define ourselves in a world that doesn’t seem to make a lot of space for illness and disability. Art — a way of defining and expressing identity — can be a way to solidify and expand our self-perception.

Art connects us to others.

Those of us who live with chronic illness often experience physical and emotional isolation. Connection through art can overcome that isolation. When we show others our art, we are showing them ourselves. They may share with us how our art makes them feel; they may inquire how we became inspired to create our work. A dialogue is opened. Additionally, those of us who get hooked on making art inevitably are drawn to the creations of others. We find ourselves seeking out and being curious about other people’s artwork. Even when we are in the hospital, we can engage on online forums devoted to discussion about art.

Art takes us outside of the limits of our bodies.

The photographer Dorothea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” She’s right: Creating art changes and expands our minds, teaching us to be alert to the infinite details of the world around us. When we feel ill, it’s often difficult to be mindful of anything but our pain-ridden bodies. Making art turns our attention outward. People creating art often describe a feeling of being in a pleasurable “flow” in which they lose track of time, worries and bodily aches. When we have the experience of tapping into this flow, we gain access to a creative part of our mind that continues to delight us even when we are not actively making art. We notice color and form in nature, in architecture and design, in the infinite details of the world. We can take pleasure in the delicate leaves of a houseplant sitting in our living room; we can enjoy the way that fruit looks arranged on our plates. Our lives are broadened in ways that our bodies can’t limit.

Art can help us attune to process rather than product.

When I make art, I have an idea in my head of what I want my painting to look like. I’ve come to learn that what I create on paper will look very different from that Idealized image. My skill level is minimal, and I make mistakes the moment my brush hits the paper. But there’s always something to like. I can see my work getting better with practice; many mistakes are happy accidents that teach me something new and unexpected; and I cut up paintings that don’t work to use them for collaging. There is pleasure in imperfection, in working in the present moment with all of its limitations.

This pleasure in process can affect how we see ourselves. There are days that we hurt, days that we don’t look our best, days that feel dark. They are just pieces of our ever-evolving journey. We are always learning, growing, surprised by life. We are dynamic, not static — ourselves a work in progress.

We can enjoy art even when we’re pretty sick.

As I write this blog post, I am concerned that some of my readers will feel unseen. Perhaps your illness is such that you can’t pick up a paintbrush. It may be that you are too tired even to contemplate lifting your head off the pillow. Your pain might be too great to step outside of it just now. I do see you, and I am aware that there are times when nothing comforts us. When you feel able to do so, though, think about letting art into your life in ways that are manageable. You may enjoy flipping through Pinterest or Instagram for five minutes, seeking out images that please you. Follow your preferences and enjoy that spark of creativity that ignites when you find a picture that speaks to you. Just that small moment can be beneficial, reminding you that, while your illness is a part of you, it is not the whole of you.

Start small and have fun.

If we provide children with paper and crayons, they grab the crayons and color on the paper. They don’t say, “I’m not artistic,” or “I wouldn’t know how to begin,” or “This is boring.” They say, “Yay! Art!” For children, art is playing. Remember what it was like to play? You didn’t second-guess yourself or worry not being good enough. You didn’t give yourself a grade or chastise yourself for your performance. You just had fun.

So grab a crayon or a paintbrush or a pencil or the camera on your phone. Draw a picture, take a picture, look at a picture, even just notice how blue the sky is. And if you prefer art in other forms (music, theater, dance, etc.) — go for it! I hope that the practice of art — in whichever way you choose to engage with it — benefits you and bring you joy.


Kaimal, G., Ray, K., & Muniz, J. (2016). Reduction of cortisol levels and participants' responses following art making. Art Therapy 33(2) 74-80.

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