How Art Helps With Stress Management

Art Therapy & Stress Management

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the large part art has played in the last year of my life, and I just haven’t gotten around to it. Well the procrastination ends today.

About a year ago, I started seriously painting again. I’d been painting birdhouses fairly frequently a few years ago, but I’d only sparsely touched a canvas throughout the years. There wasn’t much effort (although there were exceptions) but it was still something I enjoyed. I was lacking in self discipline. So I forced myself to paint.

And after time, I fell in love with art again.

I began painting dog portraits. Having easy access to dozens of acrylic paints acquired over the years, I began buying canvases in bulk rather quickly. Soon I found myself at the little art store across from work, browsing for far too long, taking out each paintbrush- searching for the perfect ones. Having an outlet again was nice. There was relief there, and also the feeling of integrity upon completion of a new piece.

(Click here to view my recent paintings & artwork.)

My initial discovery of painting summed up in a nutshell: I received my first set of paints (oil) on my 13th birthday. (12th? Eh.) I was, as usual, clueless, but had made up my mind that I was going to learn to paint. I tried to paint a landscape with a well rounded, leafy tree on a piece of heavy paper from my sketchbook. It did not work out very well. So, I got a canvas, because I assumed that’s what people were usually painting on in the movies.

All of this back story leads me to the critical point I feel art has made in the stress management of my life. Whatever artistic outlet you use – painting, music, writing- is healthier for you not only mentally, but physically as well.

In fact, not only creating art, but also the mere act of viewing art is known to reduce stress.

According to Mic:

The interior insula, which is connected to pleasant emotions, and the putamen, the area that has ties to the experience of reward, are two sectors of the brain that are triggered by viewing art.

It’s expected that the brain will recognize faces and process scenes when you look at art. But parts of the brain linked to emotions also show activity in the process.

In just a few minutes of Google searching, it’s easy to find studies and studies of artists and their brains. This one though, from Huffington Post, stands out:  How Art Changes Your Brain. A large part of the article is spent discussing a study out of Germany which studied the emotional intelligence of two groups for ten weeks. The group in the hands-on workshop in which they created art showed:

observed “a significant improvement in psychological resilience” as well increased levels of “functional connectivity”

It makes sense to me. Another important point of the study: the participants were all between the ages of 62 & 70.  Even cortisol levels, the so-called “Stress Hormone,” have been shown to be reduced when the brain is stimulated artistically. Other studies point out the benefits of motor skills in relation to visual stimulus.
According to another new study, Artists’ brains appear to have more grey matter than the brains of non-artists. The increased grey matter was seen in the parietal lobe portion of the brain- a region with links to spatial orientation & cognition; understanding & acquiring knowledge through senses.

Art & Stress ManagementMaking an honest effort to make more art has made a positive change in my life that I not only didn’t realize would happen, but seemed to happen without me even realizing it. As with anything, once I got into the habit of making the effort to make art, usually in my case by painting, I began to consciously note what I felt to be actual affirmations of the positive effects and easier stress management. In one particular instance, I was angry, having heard some gossip about me. (Haters gonna hate.) Instead of moping, I channeled my anger into a painting I’d been wanting to start, but hadn’t found the inspiration yet. I was happy with the painting in the end.

The thing I love most about art is that (to me at least,) there are no rules. Many people I meet who don’t view themselves as “creative” (which is a surprisingly large amount of people I encounter- which saddens me) claim they can’t even draw stick figures. It seems to me though, that they are being led by preconceived notions that they are no good at art, and in turn are afraid to try. Or if not afraid, they simply don’t try, having categorized themselves as “non-artists”. But there are no rules. I feel the number one rule in art is this: you must not be afraid to fail. Only if we fail do we truly learn.

Another thing about art: for me at least, I find that simply starting is usually the hardest part. Forcing myself to create a new painting, for instance: prepare the canvas, sketch the outlines based off measurements and detailed grid, and finally painting to my little heart’s content. Once I start though, I tend to soon find myself in the zone, where everything begins to flow. I focus on small details; the way the light source of an image casts shadows of the trees, as creased blue lines in a snowy landscape; the highlights and glares of an eye reflecting the sun. I guess you could say, it’s kind of like meditation, in a sense.

“Painting embraces all the ten functions of the eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Art, Mental Health, Stress Management

Link Love

From SoulPancake: The Science of Happiness – Art Therapy.


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