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Art as Medicine

When you are feeling anxious or stressed, what do you do? For some people who experience anxiety, they might be prescribed medications. Other people with less severe symptoms might find temporary relief in eating certain foods, scrolling on their phones, or other repeated behaviors. Additionally, once one is in a stressed state, it can be difficult to find ways to relax one's mind and body. One area that is being researched to address problems such as anxiety, stress, and PTSD is the field of art therapy. Traditional art therapy involves a patient going to an art therapist for a session. However, the outcomes of creating art outside the realm of traditional art therapy have been studied and proven beneficial. Multiple studies have found that even spending a short amount of time involved in creative arts has a significant effect on lowering anxiety and stress levels and promoting a better mood. A background in the arts or access to specific materials is not required to experience the therapeutic benefits. This research has a practical application for college students, who often experience stress as a result of heavy workloads, balancing tasks, and exams. 


Sometimes people perceive art-making as a structured and time-consuming process. This mindset might prevent people from setting aside time in their schedules to create art. However, studies have shown that significant benefits can be enjoyed even when only creating art for a short amount of time. A study (van der Vennet et al., 2012) found that having participants engage in a coloring task for only twenty minutes significantly reduced their anxiety levels. Additionally, another study looking to see the difference in brain activation between three drawing tasks (coloring, doodling, and free drawing), had each participant engage in each task for only three minutes each (Kaimal et al., 2017). Even with such short time constraints, the study found that the participants experienced significant activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, a reward center of the brain. When asked about their experience creating art, participants said that it was enjoyable and relaxing, and their perceptions of having good ideas and being able to solve problems improved (Kaimal et al., 2017). Based on this research, those looking to experience the benefits of creating art can do so even without dedicating a lot of time to it. Short art sessions are less of a time commitment, and can easily be incorporated into one’s daily or weekly schedule. Before a stressful activity, a short creative session can help to reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve problem-solving skills.


Another barrier that prevents people from experiencing the many benefits of creating art is the thought that one has to be an "artist" to create art. However, studies found that the benefits of making art apply both to those with experience creating art and those who do not have experience. Small children tend to be freer with their creativity and their perceptions of themselves as being creative. Young kids can throw paint on a canvas, make a beautiful mess while crafting, and confidently call themselves artists without any inhibition. As people get older, they feel that the creative arts are only open to those who are artists and if they do not have what they believe is the requisite talent, they shouldn't make art. One study (Kaimal et al., 2016) looked at the effect of 45 minutes of art-making on the reduction of cortisol levels and found that all participants, whether or not they had experience with art-making, had significant reductions in cortisol levels after creating art. Additionally, after creating the art, participants discussed how they did not usually make art as adults, and felt transported back to their childhood when they made more art. Using art as a form of therapy is not always focused on creating a final product, but rather the process itself as the therapeutic goal. This perspective can help those who feel intimidated by creating art when they don't see themselves as an artist because the expectations are removed. One can achieve the goal just by creating any art at all, no experience is necessary. 


In addition to not requiring experience to enjoy the benefits of making art, one does not need to have any fancy or expensive supplies. In some studies looking at the effects of making art, participants used only very basic colored markers on paper (Kaimal et al., 2017). Another study that used collage materials, modeling clay, and markers– all available at low cost–  found that participants had a significant reduction in cortisol levels no matter which material they chose to work with (Kaimal et al., 2016). One study did find a difference not in the materials used but in art making method. The researchers found the most anxiety reduction in participants who colored in mandalas- usually circular geometric patterns used for meditative purposes-  versus coloring in a plaid design or free drawing on a blank sheet of paper (van der Vennet et al., 2012). There are many mandala coloring books easily available to buy or freely download (see bottom of this article for free PDFs), and that study shows scientific evidence for their benefit. Sometimes when faced with a blank sheet of paper, one might struggle with where to start, and things like mandalas can help provide structure for creating art. It is thought that the circular nature of mandalas has an intrinsically meditative quality and mandalas can help people center themselves. 


All of the above findings are especially applicable to college students. One study looked at the effects of undergraduate students creating art for 30 minutes a week before final exams (Sandmire et al., 2012). They found that the students who participated in any art making (mandalas, painting, collage making, working with clay, or drawing), experienced a significant reduction in their anxiety levels. Any student knows the negative effects of anxiety on test performance, and this study seems to provide a possible solution. If one is stressed because of upcoming tests or assignments, setting aside a short amount of time for creativity can help reduce anxiety and improve school performance. 


Looking at the research on creating art, one can see how they can experience the benefits of creating art even if they only spend a short amount of time doing it, have no prior experience, and only have limited materials available. This means that anyone with a marker and paper and even three minutes of spare time can significantly reduce their anxiety, and cortisol levels, and activate reward pathways in the brain. College students can use these findings to incorporate art-making into their routine to help with the many stresses that come about during a semester and to help promote a peaceful mindset in general.


Works Cited

Kaimal, G., Ayaz, H., Herres, J., Dieterich-Hartwell, R., Makwana, B., Kaiser, D. H., Nasser, J. A. (2017). Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawing. The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 55: 85-92, ISSN 0197-4556, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2017.05.004


Kaimal, G., Ray, K., & Muniz, J. (2016). Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making. Art therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 33(2), 74-80. https://doi.org/10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832


Sandmire, D. A., Gorham, S. R., Rankin, N. E., & Grimm, D.R. (2012). The Influence of Art Making on Anxiety: A Pilot Study. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 29(2), 68-73. https://doi-org.proxy.wexler.hunter.cuny.edu/10.1080/07421656.2012.683748


van der Vennet, & Serice, S. (2012). Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety? A Replication Study. Art Therapy, 29(2), 87–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/07421656.2012.680047



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