I’ve come to notice that artists are a laid-back bunch. They can be competitive in fighting for a piece of the pie, getting themselves noticed. But for the most part, they’re chill. They aren’t bundles of pent-up stress prone to unfiltered outbursts.
It’s not surprising considering that they have creative outlets that can keep their stress in check. By pouring themselves into creativity, they get some breathing room from not only the routine strains of work, family and over-commitment but also the bombardment of information streaming from today’s overly connected world.
A new research study has confirmed that creativity significantly reduces stress, not just because it relaxes us but also because it reduces stress-related hormones. It shows that creativity has not only a psychological impact on us but also a physiological one. That’s what sets the results of this study apart from previous research.
For some time, studies have been proving the benefits of creativity in improving medical outcomes. The concentration and mental processes it requires can promote healing because they force aside distracted, negative thoughts of illness. The self-expression at its essence can serve as a form of communication for otherwise uncommunicative people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related problems. It also keeps their minds stimulated.
There have also been studies confirming that creativity is generally helpful in reducing stress, even increasing productivity.
A decade ago, Teresa Amabile, a professor at the Harvard Business School, demonstrated this in a study on what makes people happy, creative and productive at work. She recruited 200 corporate employees involved in large creative projects to keep work diaries.
Through these diary logs, she learned, among other things, that there is a cycle in creativity. Upswings in the cycle were related to relief from stress, feelings of focus or reflections on productivity, all essential elements of creativity.
“When people were feeling more positive, they were more likely to be creative,” said Amabile, who documented the research in her 2011 book, “The Progress Principle.” “People were more likely to come up with a creative idea or solve a complex problem in a new way on those days, weeks, months when they were having the most positive affect.”
Conversely, the workers who reported feeling fearful, angry, sad, frustrated or stressed were less likely to come up with new ideas, she said.
But it hasn’t been until this new study by the Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions at Philadelphia that there were conclusions that creativity can actually alter us physiologically. It can significantly reduce cortisol, a hormone released by stress and, as such, a handy biological indicator for measuring conditions in the body.
In the research, 39 people ranging in age from 18 to 59, were engaged in 45 minutes of art-making. All types of art materials were provided, and participants could use any of the materials they desired for creating art of their choice. They were completely free to create with no directions or parameters. Their cortisol levels were measured before and after that period of creativity.
The researchers found that 75 percent of the participants’ cortisol levels lowered during the 45 minutes of creating art. It didn’t matter whether they had previous art experience or were limited in their abilities. There was also no correlation found between lowered cortisol levels and the type of medium pursued. It didn’t matter whether the participants were simply drawing with markers or creating a clay sculpture; their cortisol levels were lowered simply through the act of creating.
Wrote one participant in the study: “It was very relaxing. After about five minutes, I felt less anxious. I was able to obsess less about things that I had not done or needed to get done. Doing art allowed me to put things into perspective.”
While there now may be proof of the physiological benefits of creativity, there is still the clearing of the mind that comes from intensive focus that is truly the tonic for stress. It doesn’t matter what creative outlet the mind focuses on. It can be anything, anything at all, that requires creative thinking, no matter how simple or complex.
Skill level doesn’t matter either. You don’t have to be an achieved artist. It’s OK to make mistakes, to be clumsy in your execution or to have incomprehensible subject matter. The point is to get the creative juices flowing, to loosen up the mind until it melts the distracting, stress-ridden thoughts.
Actually, we don’t need research to tell us this. Anyone who exercises creativity, however occasionally or crudely, knows that it can be a powerful elixir.
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