Reducing Stress is a Work of Art

July 7, 2017 in Our News & Bulletins by Uptown HC

Cortisol is the “stress hormone” that helps our body manage stress when we are faced with a threat—a charging rhino, a rapidly approaching deadline at work. When our cortisol levels remain elevated for long periods of time, we face health problems including decreased immunity, increased abdominal fat storage, inhibition of thyroid hormone activation, insomnia, depression, and poor memory. Cortisol also stimulates the breakdown of muscle, bone, and connective tissue.

Quitting the stressful job or staying away from rhinos is one way to keep cortisol at healthy levels. If those aren’t options for you, a Drexel University study found another way to significantly reduce cortisol levels—making art. And you don’t have to be a Rembrandt to do it.

39 adults aged 18 to 59 years old participated in a 45-minute art-making session. Participants could choose from materials including modeling clay, markers and paper, and collage materials. No directions were given; participants could create any work of art they liked. Roughly under half of the participants had limited experience making art.

Cortisol levels were measured via saliva samples before and after the art-making session. Participants also shared written responses about their experience at the end of the sessions.

The researchers found that 75 percent of the participants’ cortisol levels were lowered during their 45- minute session. While they expected the stress-reducing effect to be higher among the participants who had prior experience with art-making, the participants with limited art-making experience benefited equally.

About 25 percent of the people had higher levels of cortisol, but as some amount of cortisol is necessary for functioning—cortisol levels are higher in the morning to give us energy to begin our day, for instance—that isn’t necessarily bad.

Controlling cortisol levels isn’t just important for busy executives or people in high-stress occupations like firefighting. Cortisol accelerates muscle loss, already a concern for seniors. Lowering cortisol levels can help seniors preserve muscle strength. Making art is an activity that can be done anywhere, any time—helpful to people with tight schedules or who may not be able to leave home.

So get out the pencils, the modelling clay, or even the glue and pipe cleaners, and start channeling your inner Picasso.

Source: Kaimal, G, Ray, K and Muniz, J. Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making. Art Therapy. 2016 Apr 2; 33(2): 74–80.

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