Managing Stress Through Art

At this time of year when we welcome back the light, so desperately needed after a couple of dark years, it can be helpful to find colourful and enjoyable means of reducing stress levels. As stress levels may be at an all-time high, it is fortunate for us in the Elk Valley that there is also an ever-increasing amount of art available to enjoy in the form of public art as well as small, local galleries popping up, but also in opportunities to learn about different medias and produce art. 

In a review of the literature that exists in the area of the effect art and art therapy have on health, music appears to be the most accessible and the most researched form of art used for healing purposes. Music has been shown to decrease anxiety, restore emotional balance, and actually help patients achieve control over pain. Several studies have demonstrated the use of music therapy in cancer patients with chronic pain, illustrating that music can not only reduce pain in this population, but also increase their sense of control while in the hospital, improve immunity, and decrease their anxiety.

Art therapy, or utilizing art projects to allow people to explore their creativity, also can help people to express and process emotions such as grief, loss, fear, and anxiety, potentially enabling them 
to reclaim an identity outside of these emotions and move past the experiences that have shaped them. Art and music therapy have thus become useful in working with patients struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder as it allows them to use imagery to tell their stories without having to verbally recount the events of their past. Further, it enables them to express ideas or experiences for which they lack the words. The same appears to be true for people with cancer, heart disease, or other serious illnesses. Encouraging these patients to explore their disease and the emotions around the disease through artistic expression, either in a group or individual setting, can open up the pathways to emotional healing.

The use of music or art in hospitals is shown to decrease hospital stays, reduce stress, and decrease the need for sleep aids, but this is not limited to those participating in hands on forms of art therapy. Having art on the walls and playing music in the background at the hospital is also associated with these improved experiences and outcomes. These benefits extend to our own homes and the world around 
us. Having soothing art on the walls and listening to music can have a direct result on our mood, as well as on the production and balancing of stress hormones. The same is true of those who participate in playing music or creating art at any level. Playing a simple piece of music on the piano is a form of artistic expression that can have impactful effects on your mind and body, just as drawing, or even filling out the pages of a colouring book can.

Beyond art and music exist other forms of art therapy such as movement-based creative expression (such as dancing and tai chi) and expressive writing, which both appear to have positive effects on body image, ambulation, and psychological well-being as well as perceived overall physical well-being. Those who participate in expressive writing, in particular, appear to have less pain, less depression, less fatigue, and improved immunity. 

For many of us, tapping into our artistic side is a departure from most of the cognitive and physical work that we do on a day-to-day basis, so these activities actually provide our brains with a different type of exercise that can have long-lasting effects. Decreasing our stress response has a wide variety of well-known effects, including but not limited to improved sleep, better mood, and decreased anxiety. 

Despite there not being comprehensive empirical data on the efficacy and importance of art therapy of all types on wellness or health, it is no small coincidence that humans have integrated art into all of our cultures and civilizations with such great importance. As we enter the light-filled month of June, perhaps take an opportunity to see what is available locally for to you to both look at and produce.