A piece made with markers and modeling clay by a participant in study “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making” (2016) (Image via DrexelNOW)

For wannabe Michelangelos, Sunday painters, and art class dunces alike, making art can help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a new study suggests. 

Authored by researchers at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, the study adds to a growing body of research that backs up with data the tenets of art therapy. The study, “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making,” was recently published in Art Therapy by co-authors Girija Kaimal, assistant professor of creative arts therapies, Kendra Ray, a doctoral student under Kaimal, and Juan Muniz, an assistant teaching professor at Drexel.

Researchers went into the study assuming that experienced artists would benefit more greatly from the stress-relieving effects of art-making, but there was no correlation between participants’ artistic experience and levels of stress hormone. “It was surprising and it also wasn’t,” Kaimal told DrexelNOW. “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.”

The researchers’ methodology was simple: 39 adults, ranging from 18 to 59 years old, spent 45 minutes making art. Just under half of the participants reported having little experience making art. An art therapist was present to answer any questions, but there were no specific instructions about what to create. Participants were given free reign to make whatever they wanted with markers and paper, modeling clay and collage materials.

Using saliva samples, researchers measured the participants’ cortisol levels before and after the art-making period. Cortisol is an adrenal hormone colloquially known as the “stress hormone” — the higher your cortisol levels, the more stressed you’re likely to feel.

The results? 75 percent of the participants’ cortisol levels decreased during the 45 minutes spent drawing, coloring, collaging, and sculpting. The amount of cortisol decrease varied somewhat, but there was no correlation between past art-making experiences and lower levels of the stress hormone. There was also no correlation between the medium used (i.e., collage versus clay) and changes in cortisol.

Participants wrote reflections on their experiences during the exercise. “It was very relaxing,” one wrote. “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.”

“Participants’ written responses indicated that they found the art-making session to be relaxing, enjoyable, helpful for learning about new aspects of self, freeing from constraints, an evolving process of initial struggle to later resolution, and about flow/losing themselves in the work,” the study’s authors wrote. “They also reflected that the session evoked a desire to make art in the future.”

For the other 25% of participants, cortisol levels rose while making art. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they panicked at the sight of markers and clay. Researchers say higher cortisol levels could indicate participants were stimulated or energized by the exercise, not stressed.

“Some amount of cortisol is essential for functioning,” Kaimal said. “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.”

h/t Science Daily 

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.