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Managing Stress through Art

Stress relief can be facilitated through a number of channels, and participating in a creative activity is one of those ways.

by Andie Burjek

My company recently announced that it’s hosting a wine and paint afternoon for employees this spring. It’s an opportunity to eat some cheese, make anything you can hang up and appreciate your coworkers’ artwork. I’m looking forward to this because one of my coworkers and I regularly talk about paintings we’re working on and art shows she’s planning to attend.

It’s also good for us because our walls are boringly off white, blank and a general bummer to look at.

We need something for those walls. I think back to when I interned at a news station and found a painting stashed in a supply closet. It was an image of Rod Blagojevich’s face on a rat’s body with some dark, underworld-esque backdrop. Even that would be better on our walls than nothing.

This got me thinking about the impact creating art can have on your brain, stress levels and overall health, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

According to one article on the benefits of art therapy — “a form of expressive psychotherapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being” — the benefits of creating art include a general sense of relief, overall better mental health, decreased stress and the chance to process complicated emotions. It’s a tool that individuals can use for their own benefit or a legitimate type of therapy that professionals use to treat people with a variety of emotional or mental disorders like cancer, PTSD, emotional abuse and bipolar disorder.

Although the mental and emotional health care side of this is rather fascinating, I’ve on written mental health relatively recently in this blog.

Now I’d like to focus on general stress relief.

I’ve been through this myself. I took a figure drawing class in college while I studied abroad in Rome, and it’d often be my favorite part of the week. After sitting on some ancient church’s steps nearby for half an hour and people-watching, I’d get three hours in a quiet, dusty studio.

There’d be nothing to listen to but the rustling of my classmates’ sketchbooks or the sound of their charcoal breaking. It was a wonderful opportunity to focus on one task for three hours straight and clear my head of to-do lists and obligations.

A different article from Business Insider also listed several benefits of making art for the average person. Noteworthy here is that “making art” doesn’t have to mean painting or drawing; it can be sculpting, dancing, making music or any other creative pursuit. Also, there are many scientific studies that have been conducted to support the potential benefits of creating art.

There’s still further research to be done, but many of these study results show promise. A 2016 Journal of American Art Therapy Association study found that participants who made visual art for 45 minutes saw a reduction in cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

A Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology studyfound that when people doodle while listening to dull information, they’re more likely to remember that information and stay focused. And a 2015 study conducted by Gottfried Schlaug, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, found that people who played music regularly saw improvement in academic performance, language skills and memory.

I think the workplace could learn a thing or two from these lessons. Sleeping enough, having a healthy diet and exercising more can help with stress relief, of course, but something on the more creative side can help, too.

The focus of wellness initiatives is so often something physical. Take this many steps; lose that many pounds; take a yoga class this many times a week; track your blood pressure or some other body measurement on this app.

There is a trend moving toward mental or emotional well-being in wellness programs, but there’s still more to be seen what happens in that area.

I once asked a wellness professional I met at a conference if employees could use funds given to them through an employer-sponsored wellness program on activities like art classes. Her response was that although that idea was fine in theory, it’s difficult to measure the impact of the something like that.

So often it seems like corporate wellness programs are much more focused on what can be counted. Of course, there’s a reason for this. That way results can be measured, which allows a company to quantify the impact of the program. But I don’t think we should underestimate the potential of the creative or the qualitative.

Has your company ever incorporated something creative or art-based in your wellness program? Also, feel free to share in the comments some projects you’ve created to relieve stress!

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