Whether you’re Van Gogh or an amateur cartoonist, a new study from Drexel University found that making art reduces cortisol significantly. Cortisol is the stress-related hormones in your body.

Although researchers from the Drexel School of Nursing and Health believed that having experience creating art could amplify the stress-reducing effects of activity, their study found that everyone seemed to benefit equally.

“It was surprising and it wasn’t surprising either,” said Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor of creative arts therapy. “It was not surprising because that is the central idea of ​​art therapy: we are all creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when we work in a supportive environment. That said, I was hoping 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 responses of participants after artistic creation.” Kendra Ray, Kaimal’s doctoral student, and Juan Muniz, PhD, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences , served as co-authors.

“Biomarkers” are biological indicators (like hormones) that can be used to measure conditions in the body, such as stress. Cortisol was one of those hormones measured in the study through saliva samples. The higher a person’s cortisol level, the more stressed a person can be.

For Kaimal’s study, 39 adults, ages 18 to 59, were invited to participate in 45 minutes of artistic creation. The cortisol levels were taken before and after the period of working with art.

Materials available to participants included markers and paper, modeling clay, and collage materials. No instructions were given and each participant was able to use any of the materials they chose to create any artwork they desired. An art therapist was present during the activity to help if the participant requested it.

Of those who participated in the study, just under half reported that they had limited experience creating art.

The researchers found that 75 percent of the participants’ cortisol levels dropped during their 45 minutes of making art . And although there was some variation in the reduction of cortisol levels, there was no correlation between past artistic experiences and lower levels.

Written testimonials of their experiences afterward revealed how participants felt about creative art.


“It was very relaxing,” wrote one. “After about five minutes, I felt less anxious. I was able to become less obsessed with things that I had not done or that needed to be done. Making art allowed me to put things in perspective ”.

However, about 25 percent of the participants actually had higher cortisol levels, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Art as a possible anti-stress therapy for students

“A certain amount of cortisol is essential for function,” Kaimal explained. “For example, our cortisol levels vary throughout the day, the levels are higher in the morning because that gives us an energy boost at the start of the day. It could have been that the artistic creation resulted in a state of excitement and / or commitment in the study participants ”.

Kaimal and his team believed, upon entering the study, that the type of art materials used by the participants could affect cortisol levels. They thought that less structured media, using clay or drawing with markers, would result in lower levels of cortisol than structured collage. That, however, was not supported by the results, as no significant correlation was found.

The study found a weak correlation between age and lower cortisol levels. The youngest participants consistently showed lower levels of cortisol after creating the art.

Those results made Kaimal wonder how young college students and high school students deal with the stress that comes from academia, and how the creative arts can help.

Creative expression as a therapeutic environment

“I think one of the reasons could be that younger people are still developing ways of dealing with stress and challenges, while older people, having lived and aged, may have more strategies for problem solving and stress management. more effectively. Kaimal said.

In light of that, Kaimal plans to extend the study to explore whether “creative self-expression in a therapeutic setting can help reduce stress.” In that study, other biomarkers such as alpha amylase and oxytocin will also be measured to obtain a more complete picture.

In addition, in these studies he also plans to study how expression based on the visual arts affects patients at the end of life and their caregivers.

“We want to ultimately examine how creative activities could help with psychological well-being and therefore physiological health as well,” he said.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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