It's endemic in our culture. Between the chaos and noise, the frustrating jobs, and the continuing parade of bad news in the media, it'd be surprising if you weren't stressed. And ongoing stress is linked to an increase in the hormone cortisol, long-term high levels of which are in turn connected to inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis and acid reflux disorder, and according to some studies, to dementia.
So reducing stress is pretty important, not just in the here-and-now to make your life more enjoyable, but to improve your chances at a healthy future. So that's why I thought the research from Drexel University I read a couple of days ago was so interesting.
The paper "Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making," by Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, and Juan Muniz, appeared in the journal Art Therapy, and reports that the researchers found a reduction in cortisol levels in participants after spending only forty-five minutes making art -- a result that was irrespective of whether the participant had any prior experience as an artist.
"It was surprising and it also wasn’t," Kaimal said. "It wasn’t surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: Everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting. That said, I did expect that perhaps the effects would be stronger for those with prior experience."
[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]
Kaimal did report that a quarter of the subjects showed an increase in cortisol after making art. Of this result, she said, "Some amount of cortisol is essential for functioning. 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."
I would also suggest that it's possible the elevated cortisol may have come from frustration, although Kaimal reports that most of the test subjects reported feeling better and more relaxed after the experience, whatever their cortisol levels said. I can vouch for the frustrations that making art can engender; some years ago, on the urging of my wife, I signed up for a pottery class, and have kept up the hobby since then despite the fact that I have the artistic ability that God gave gravy. My first attempts looked like ceramics that were either created by a four-year-old or possibly an unusually intelligent chimp. After four or five years, I was able to turn out pieces that were marginally better, but still looked like they might have gotten Honorable Mention in the sixth-grade art show. And along the way, I experienced moments of enjoyment and stress-reduction interspersed with long stretches of wanting to fling the lump of clay at the nearest wall.
But I'm kind of a high-stress person anyhow, so maybe my experience isn't typical. And it bears mention that I have high standards to live up to. My wife is a professional artist (check out her work here if you want to be amazed), my dad made jewelry and gorgeous stained-glass windows, my mother was an oil painter and a porcelain artist, my older son is a talented cartoonist and caricaturist, and my younger son works full-time as a glassblower. Somehow in all that, the Art Gene missed me, although in my own defense I can say with some confidence that I have excellent working copies of the Music Gene and the Fiction Writing Gene.
In any case, it's an interesting study. As I said earlier, anything we can do to reduce the stress and anxiety in our lives is worthwhile. And who knows? Maybe I should give more of a chance to art. Sign up for a painting class or something. After ten years' practice, maybe I'd be able to do something more than a lopsided house with a yellow smiley-face as a sun.
Or maybe I should just go play the piano.