you’re Van Gogh or a stick-figure sketcher, a new Drexel University
study found that making art can significantly reduce stress-related
hormones in your body.
Although the researchers from Drexel’s
College of Nursing and Health Professions believed that past experience
in creating art might amplify the activity’s stress-reducing effects,
their study found that everyone seems to benefit equally.
was surprising and it also wasn’t,” said Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant
professor of creative arts therapies. “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 results of the study were published in Art Therapy
under the title “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’
Responses Following Art Making.” Kendra Ray, a doctoral student under
Kaimal, and Juan Muniz, PhD, an assistant teaching professor in the
Department of Nutrition Sciences, served as co-authors.
are biological indicators (like hormones) that can be used to measure
conditions in the body, such as stress. Cortisol was one such the
hormone measured in the study through saliva samples. The higher a
person’s cortisol level, the more stressed a person is likely to be.
Kaimal’s study, 39 adults, ranging from 18 to 59 years old, were
invited to participate in 45 minutes of art-making. Cortisol levels were
taken before and after the art-making period.
to the participants included markers and paper, modeling clay and
collage materials. There were no directions given and every participant
could use any of the materials they chose to create any work of art they
desired. An art therapist was present during the activity to help if
the participant requested any.
Of those who took part in the study, just under half reported that they had limited experience in making art.
researchers found that 75 percent of the participants’ cortisol levels
lowered during their 45 minutes of making art. And while there was some
variation in how much cortisol levels lowered, there was no correlation
between past art experiences and lower levels.
Written testimonies of their experiences afterward revealed how the participants felt about the creating art.
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
However, roughly 25 percent of the participants
actually registered higher levels of cortisol — though that wasn’t
necessarily a bad thing.
“Some amount of cortisol is essential for
functioning,” Kaimal explained. “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.”
Kaimal and her team
believed, going into the study, that the type of art materials used by
participants might affect cortisol levels. They thought that the
less-structured mediums — using clay or drawing with markers — would
result in lower cortisol levels than the structured — collaging. That,
however, wasn’t supported by the results, as no significant correlation
The study did find a weak correlation between age and
lower cortisol levels. Younger participants exhibited consistently lower
cortisol levels after they’d created art.
Those results made
Kaimal wonder about how young college students and high school students
deal with the stress that comes from academia — and how creative arts
“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.
In light of that, Kaimal
plans to extend the study to explore whether “creative self- expression
in a therapeutic environment can help reduce stress.” In that study,
other biomarkers like alpha amylase and oxytocin will also be measured
to give a more comprehensive picture.
Additionally, Kaimal also plans to study how visual arts-based expression affects end-of-life patients and their caregivers.
want to ultimately examine how creative pursuits could help with
psychological well-being and, therefore, physiological health, as well,”