A groundbreaking study from Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions has revealed that engaging in art activities significantly lowers stress-related hormones. According to the research, published in Art Therapy, this effect occurs regardless of a person’s previous experience with art.
The research team, led by Girija Kaimal, embarked on this study to explore the biological effects of art making. Previous research has indicated that creative self-expression could impact stress markers, like cortisol, a hormone closely linked with stress. This study aimed to delve deeper into how various forms of art-making activities could affect individuals’ stress levels, particularly focusing on whether prior experience in art would enhance these stress-reducing effects.
The study recruited 39 adults aged 18 to 59, who were asked to participate in 45 minutes of art-making activities. These activities included working with materials like markers, modeling clay, and collage materials in a session facilitated by an art therapist. The researchers collected saliva samples before and after the art-making period to measure cortisol levels.
Participants were not given any specific direction in their creative process, allowing for a free and personal approach to the activity. This setup was intended to mimic a typical art therapy session as closely as possible.
The results were notable: about 75% of the participants showed a significant decrease in cortisol levels after the art-making session. Interestingly, the reduction in stress hormones was not significantly linked to the participants’ prior experience with art, challenging the initial hypothesis that experienced individuals might benefit more.
On the other hand, about a quarter of the participants experienced an increase in cortisol levels, which is not inherently negative.
“Some amount of cortisol is essential for functioning,” explained Kaimail, an assistant professor of creative arts therapies. “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 also found a weak correlation between lower cortisol levels and younger age groups, suggesting that younger individuals might experience greater stress reduction through art-making activities.
“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.
These findings highlight the potential of art-making as a simple yet effective stress management tool, accessible to people regardless of their artistic background.
“It was surprising and it also wasn’t,” Kaimal remarked. “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.”
Despite these promising results, the study faced limitations. The lack of a control group makes it challenging to conclusively attribute the cortisol reduction solely to art-making. The sample size was relatively small, and the participants’ experiences during the art-making session varied, which could affect the results.
Future research is proposed to explore other biomarkers and to include a more diverse sample, including clinical populations. This will help in understanding the broader implications of art therapy and its potential as a therapeutic tool for various groups, including those with specific health conditions.
This study from Drexel University offers compelling evidence that art-making can serve as a powerful tool in reducing stress. It opens the door to further exploration into the therapeutic benefits of creative self-expression, suggesting that such activities could be beneficial in various settings, from schools to healthcare facilities.
“Our pilot study provides preliminary evidence for the use of art making for lowering cortisol, a proxy measure of stress, among healthy adults. To the best of our knowledge this is the first study to demonstrate lowering of cortisol levels after a short session of art making structured to be similar to an art therapy situation,” the researchers concluded.
“In our sample, reduction of cortisol was not related to gender, type of media used, race/ethnicity, or prior experience with art making, although it was related slightly to age and time of day. There were weak to moderate correlations between the lowering of cortisol and the narrative response themes of learning about self and the evolving process of art making. It is of note that cortisol levels were lowered for most participants but not all, indicating a need to further explore stress reduction mechanisms.”
The study, “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making“, was authored by Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, and Juan Muniz.