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Art Really Can Reduce Stress, Even After 45 Minutes

Ever wondered why those adult coloring books became so popular so fast? New research shows that doing something creative reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Lola Gayle, STEAM Register

Cortisol is a hormone released by the body in response to stress that can be very bad for your health. The higher your cortisol level is, the more stressed you're likely to be. Now, researchers from Drexel University have found a way to quickly lower high cortisol levels: sit down and do something creative for 45 minutes.

The researchers, from Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions, say it doesn't matter whether you're a Van Gogh or a stick-figure sketcher. Just the simple act of creating something can reap big rewards for your frazzled psyche.

The results of the study are published in the journal Art Therapy and included Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor of creative arts therapies; Kendra Ray, a doctoral student under Kaimal; and Juan Muniz, PhD, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences.

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For their study, the researchers invited 39 adults, ranging from 18 to 59 years old, to participate in 45 minutes of art-making. Cortisol levels were taken through saliva samples before and after the art-making period.

Participants were allowed to choose from materials that included markers and paper, modeling clay, and collage materials. No directions were given and participants were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the materials at hand. An art therapist was also on hand during the activity to help if the participant requested any. Of those who took part in the study, just under half reported that they had limited experience in making art,reports Drexel's Frank Otto.

In the end, 75 percent of the participants' showed reduced cortisol levels after the 45 minute creative session. There was some variation in how much cortisol levels lowered, but there was no correlation between past art experiences and lower levels, the researchers say.

"It was very relaxing," said one study participant in a written testimonial. "After about five minutes, I felt less anxious. I was able to obsess less about things that I had not done or need [ed] to get done. Doing art allowed me to put things into perspective."

The remaining 25 percent of the participants actually registered higher levels of cortisol after the 45 minute session. But the researchers say that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Some amount of cortisol is essential for functioning," Kaimal explained. "For example, our cortisol levels vary throughout the day - levels are highest in the morning because that gives us an energy boost to us going at the start of the day. It could've been that the art-making resulted in a state of arousal and/or engagement in the study's participants."

The study did find a weak correlation between participants' age and lower cortisol levels. For example, younger participants exhibited consistently lower cortisol levels after they'd created art, Otto reports.

This made Kaimal wonder about how young college students and high school students deal with the stress that comes from academia - and how creative arts can help.

"I think one reason might be that younger people are developmentally still figuring out ways to deal with stress and challenges, while older individuals - just from having lived life and being older - might have more strategies to problem-solve and manage stress more effectively," Kaimal said.

Kaimal now plans to study to explore whether creative self-expression in a therapeutic environment can help reduce stress, as well as study how visual arts-based expression affects end-of-life patients and their caregivers.

"We want to ultimately examine how creative pursuits could help with psychological well-being and, therefore, physiological health, as well," she said.

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