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Making Art Can De-Stress You—Even If You're Lousy at It

No matter your skill level, creative endeavors can lower your cortisol levels.

Poet and vocalist Otep Shamaya may have said it all in her anagrammatical album title, "Sevas Tra": "Art saves."

Dramatic? Overly simplified? Perhaps to some. But, like countless other creative types who came before her, Shamaya was onto something. According to a new study published in the journal Art Therapy, making art has been found to lower our stress hormone levels — no matter what level of skill we bring to the table.

Three researchers from Drexel University invited 39 adults (ranging in age from 18 to 59) to flex their creativity muscles in a lab for 45 minutes. Before and after the endeavor, all participants spat into a tube so that the researchers could analyze their saliva for levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that floods our bloodstreams (and other bodily secretions, like spit) when we're under emotional and/or physical duress.

None of the participants were given specific instructions on what, exactly, to make with the paper, markers, modeling clay, and collage materials splayed out in front of them on the experimenter's table. They were only prompted to use the materials as they wished and cobble together any kind of creative product they desired while an art therapist hung around to field questions.

Less than half of the participants said their experience with making any kind of art was pretty limited. Yet 75 percent of them saw their cortisol levels drop after pulling off whatever creative expression they cobbled together.

Apart from the shift in stress hormones, the researchers write, "participants' written responses indicated that they found the art-making session to be relaxing, enjoyable, helpful for learning about new aspects of self, freeing from constraints, an evolving process of initial struggle to later resolution, and about flow/losing themselves in the work."

This isn't the first study to offer evidence in favor of art's potential to heal. Previous work has underscored the positive effects that expressive writing, musical composition, dancing, and producing visual art can have upon psychological and physiological health outcomes. But it does add a new brushstroke of hope for folks who believed their lack of expertise barred them from reaping the benefits of getting creative.

Of course, there will always be folks whose stress levels don't decrease in response to having engaged in or completed a creative endeavor — like the 25 percent of participants in the above study who saw increases in their cortisol levels during and after the creative prompt at hand. (Stage fright is real; they may have had some traumatic experience in an art class growing up; they may be perfectionists and therefore unable to enjoy anything they can't do better than everyone else in the room. They may have been intimidated by the art therapist. Or just hangry. Who knows?)

But a little bump in cortisol isn't always a bad thing. "Some amount of cortisol is essential for functioning," study author Girlja Kaimal, EdD, explained in a press release. "For example, our cortisol levels vary throughout the day — levels are highest in the morning because that gives us an energy boost to [get] going at the start of the day." Problems arise when cortisol remains chronically elevated — not just throughout the day but over weeks and months of endless pressures at work, at home, interpersonally, or due to a mental or physical illness.

If taking a pen to paper, setting an hour aside to make a collage, futz with clay, write or record a tune, or just jot down some stream-of-consciousness prose can help offset most people's chronically elevated levels of stress hormones, even the simplest artistic endeavors hold merit, the researchers believe, as effective approaches to managing modern life's pressures.

Art may not be the only way out of our woes (or our sole savior). But it can certainly help us handle things better. If not by its ability to make sense (and beauty out) of chaos, then to, at the very least, take our minds off what's stressing us out so much — irrespective of how "good" or "bad" we are at any particular craft.