Creativity vs. Stress

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Did you know that engaging in a creative activity, such as drawing or painting, reduces stress?

Creating art has been invaluable for me in managing stress. In my first two years as a doctor I really learnt the importance of self-care, and making time for painting helped me to relax after work and deal with the often emotionally challenging and stressful events of the day, or week.

In the past year, 74% of people in the UK have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. 74%. Breaking that down, 30% of older people reported never feeling this way, compared to 7% of young adults - that means 93% of young adults have felt this way. This is so, so important. Why? Stress is a significant compounding factor in the development, and progression/relapse of common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression...  51% of these adults who felt stressed also felt depressed, and 61% felt anxious (1).

We are now becoming more and more aware of the impact of stress - so much so, that the Mental Health Foundation made 'Stress' the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018. 

 

SO, WHAT IS STRESS?

Stress is defined as our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event (a ‘stressor’). What counts as a stressor varies hugely from one person to another. Different stressors will have varying effects on our mental health, too. It's important to add that stress can also profoundly affect our physical health...

When we encounter a stressor, we produce stress hormones, such as cortisol. This is normal and poses no threat to our body when it happens acutely (such as nerves in response to giving a presentation or going on a first date), but when cortisol is raised chronically it can reduce our immune response (leaving us more prone to catching infections), raise our blood pressure (increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke), and raise our blood sugar level (increasing the risk of diabetes).

A number of different studies have proven that engaging in a creative activity can improve our levels of stress and reduce our cortisol levels (2,3). One study found that after 45 minutes of creative activity, 75% of participants displayed lower levels of cortisol (2). This was not related to previous experience or skill. How fantastic is that?

 

So why does creating art have such a powerful effect on stress?

 

#1 -  MINDFULNESS

As you may already know, meditation and mindfulness is an evidence-based treatment for stress, anxiety and depression(4). Drawing, painting and creating can also be a mindful practice! Those with no experience in mindfulness may notice that the hundreds of thoughts that run through our minds are quieter than normal when we are focused on creating something… Those who are more experienced in mindfulness could use this time to practice; noticing the thoughts that do come into our minds, acknowledging them and then returning to what we are doing without getting caught up in them. Often when I'm sitting down to paint, I can look up and hours have passed, and I have been completely unaware of anything else. It really is the perfect escape. 

#2 - A SENSE OF ACHIEVEMENT

Creating a piece of art, or developing any hobby that you love, will bring a sense of achievement and satisfaction. It can lift your spirits in the short-term when you create a piece of art you are pleased with! In the long term, seeing improvement in your skills overtime or simply committing to working on a skill of your choice and sticking with it, can be extremely fulfilling. 

#3 - ECOTHERAPY

This one is more for those budding botanical artists out there… By definition, ecotherapy is a type of formal treatment that involves doing activities outside in nature, run by a trained therapist. Being in nature has been shown to reduce stress, and even help with moderate symptoms of depression (5).

The art of botanical illustration by definition means that you are interacting with nature; you may be working out in the field, or bringing nature into your home where you will study, draw and paint. Even if you are not interested in painting botanicals, you may well find that you can manifest some of the benefits of ecotherapy, by incorporating your creative activity of choice with nature!

#4 - YOU-TIME

Creating art can be, but isn’t always, a solitary activity. For some people, this time alone can be exactly what is needed to wind-down and relax. When I really feel the need to de-stress, I like to make my art desk a bit of a sanctuary... I like to make sure it's tidy and cosy (mess ≠ relaxing for me!), maybe light a candle, get a warm blanket and, obviously, a cup of tea, and create a calm environment to get into a different headspace. 

#5 - COMMUNITY

Although 'you-time' is a fantastic way to relax, participating in local art groups can also be a fantastic way to meet people, socialise, and share your hobby. In my village alone, there are about 4 different art groups running! Surrounding yourself with other like-minded people, and engaging with the community is known to alleviate stress and improve our mental wellbeing, as stress can often make us feel lonely and isolated.

 

I am so keen to share my experiences with art and it’s benefits for stress and relaxation. In this busy world that we live in, with so many outside pressures, making time for ourselves is so important. Getting stuck into a craft of some kind can be the perfect escape… I hope this post has given you a little insight into that! 

So, find a little nook in your house, put your phone on airplane mode, make a cup of tea, grab some art materials and lose yourself for an hour. It's helped me, and I'm very confident it can help you, too!


Creativity is contagious - pass it on.
— Albert Einstein

REFERENCES

(1) https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-stress

(2) Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray & Juan Muniz (2016) Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making, Art Therapy, 33:2, 74-80, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832

(3) Martin L, Oepen R, Bauer K, et al. Creative Arts Interventions for Stress Management and Prevention—A Systematic Review. Behavioural Sciences. 2018;8(2):28. doi:10.3390/bs8020028.

(4) https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/mindfulness/#.W3GyyZNKiRt

(5) https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/#.WzyvtRJKiRs