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Do This For 45 Minutes To Majorly Cut Down Your Cortisol Levels

We have a friend, a successful lawyer, who keeps a couple of coloring books in her office for those times when she needs a mental break. A college counselor at a university recommends pottery workshops to overwhelmed students to help relieve their anxiety. For Susan, it’s knitting, gardening, and collage, which she practices to stay both grounded and in touch with her feelings. Ivy carries tuning forks in her bag, because the resonant sound of the notes C and G combined can soothe a stressful moment.

For all of us, there are times when life is too much to handle, when anxiety and burnout waylay us. Relieving our stress is as important as eating food, drinking water, and sleeping. And, in these moments, the arts and aesthetics make a big difference if you know how to use them. Think of the arts as an activity that changes your biology, emotional state, and enhances your mental well-being.

You don’t have to be great, or even good, at making art to experience the benefits.

When the arts become a regular practice–the way you might improve nutrition, increase exercise, and prioritize sleep–you unleash an innate tool that helps you navigate the peaks and valleys of your inner life. And the best news is that you don’t have to be great, or even good, at making art to experience the benefits.

In a study1, Girija Kaimal, assistant dean for special research initiatives and an associate professor in the creative arts therapies program at Drexel University, found that for the majority of people, making art for as little as 45 minutes reduces the stress hormone cortisol, no matter your skill level or experience. Making art is physiologically calming. Girija explains, “The study was set up with an art therapist in the room who could provide support as needed to allow for authentic self-expression. There was no judgment or expectation, rather participants were encouraged to focus on the process and to feel safe, thus reducing stress and anxiety.” She reminds us that anyone can do this at home with simple materials if they create without value judgments.

The arts offer a range of effective treatments for individual mental-health challenges, as well as our collective emotional zeitgeist. They improve our psychology by offering enhanced self-efficacy, coping, and emotional regulation2. They improve our physiology by lowering stress-hormone response, enhancing immune function3, and increasing cardiovascular reactivity4. And that’s just the beginning.

Over the last two decades, there have been thousands of studies with outcomes illuminating the reasons diverse arts practices, both as the maker and as a beholder, improve our psychological state. Take the work of Daisy Fancourt. She’s a British psychobiology and epidemiology researcher at University College London who has been studying the effect of the arts on health, including a breakthrough study in 2020 involving tens of thousands of participants in the U.K. She and her two research partners used a sophisticated statistical technique that accounted for multiple variables in lifestyle, and they found that people who participated in arts activities more than once a week, or who attended cultural events at least once or twice per year, had significantly higher life satisfaction than those who did not. This was the same across socioeconomic levels. People who engaged in the arts were found to have lower mental distress, better mental functioning, and improved quality of life.


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In Boston, pediatrician Michael Yogman writes a new kind of prescription for his young patients: the arts and play. Yogman, who is also an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, prescribes his patients a daily playful activity to be done with a caregiver or friends, such as dancing, drawing, or playing pretend. He tailors his “prescriptions” to match the needs and preferences of each child, emphasizing the idea of joyful engagement. Michael says, “Children need different things. They have specific likes and dislikes depending on their developmental stage and their emotional engagement. We work to find the best fit that maximizes joyful discovery.” Michael’s goal is to head off stress, loneliness, and anxiety by helping his patients understand and process their emotions and build skills for the future.

He also works to enhance safe, stable relationships with parents and peers, which promotes resilience. The activities he prescribes help them to regulate emotions, and soon his kids are able to incorporate these practices into their lives. Over time, they gain knowledge and confidence and learn to buffer stress.

This is what’s known as social prescribing5, and it’s happening in the U.K., Canada, and the United States. Physicians, psychologists, social workers, and others are prescribing singing classes for stress, museum visits and concert tickets for anxiety, and nature walks for burnout–offering prevention and intervention. Social prescribing engages the arts as an immersive form of precision medicine, aligning cultural activities with individual needs. And these activities don’t have to be time-consuming or expensive to integrate into your daily life.

What if, instead of scrolling on your phone with your morning coffee, you spent twenty minutes drawing in a doodle diary, or creating your own mandala? You could black out words in the newspaper and create a found poem, or pick up your kid’s (or your!) LEGO bricks for freeform design, or Play-Doh to create something new. Take old clothes and make a memory blanket. Throughout the day you can pause and add a little bit of art and aesthetics into your life and see how it changes your mood. The list is endless and the results are immediate.

New technologies are making it even easier to access a range of arts and aesthetic experiences for mental health uses. John Legend and other world-renowned musicians have partnered with the mindfulness app Headspace to bring music to mindfulness practices. The website Wavepaths combines personalized music with and without psychedelic therapy using state-of-the-field science. And through NEA Research Labs, neuropsychologist Robert Bilder at the University of California, Los Angeles, has developed a groundbreaking, simple-to-use well-being assessment app using psychometrics to measure in real-time the benefits of the arts. Currently in the pilot stage, the Arts Impact Measurement Systems, or AIMS, can be used by researchers around the world to collect standardized data on the benefits of the arts. Large data sets will emerge that can be analyzed to better understand and target mental health and well-being approaches.

There is infinite energy and vibration in the universe, there are also unending ways the arts aid in cultivating well-being. They help us navigate the uncertainty and unpredictability of life and ride the wave of complex emotions and feelings. As neuroaesthetic researchers continue to learn more about the mechanisms for why that is, the future promises to bring us even more compelling insights. Grab a pencil, a pen, a paintbrush, a tuning fork, a harmonica, a drum, a ball of yarn, or a bag of potting soil and some plants and bring the benefits of art and aesthetics into your day.

From the book YOUR BRAIN ON ART by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross. Copyright (C) 2023 by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.


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