How Creative Expression Can Heal You

Nobody likes hospitals. If you’re in a hospital bed, you’re most likely not doing too well and wish you were home instead. The reality is that patients go through a lot: they may be dealing with not only physical pain, but also the emotional tolls of constant treatment, fear for their future health, anxiety over financial expenses, changes in social relationships, and a myriad of other variables all due to their hospitalization. Many patients feel out of control of their own lives. But when dismal clouds loom over their heads, art therapy can provide a light that helps patients see past the darkness.


Art therapy utilizes art-based interventions to support the psychological, physiological, and emotional growth of patients. Medical art therapists allow patients of all ages to engage in artistic activities in an effort to express themselves in a form other than verbal. It is intended to help people cope with the unspoken traumas and complexities of being ill. Although the practice began in the mid-20th century, medical art therapy is still a small, underpaid profession that only a handful of hospitals have implemented into their facilities. Because it’s so understudied and overlooked, this potentially effective approach toward patient recovery has been neglected.


Participants in art therapy have reported lower pain, mood and anxiety levels after art therapy sessions [1]. Along with major improvements in depression and anxiety levels, participants note an overall increase in their quality of life. It has also been shown to have positive effects on coping mechanisms, self-expression, and social interaction in adult cancer patients [2]. One study showed an increase in physical activity and social relationships for child cancer patients [3].


The list doesn’t end there: although it is mainly considered a mental health practice, art therapy can bring physiological benefits, too! In an NUS study with elderly people living with mild cognitive impairment, neurocognitive functions (memory, attention, and visuo-spatial abilities) significantly improved within 3 months of attending art therapy sessions [4]. Additionally, an NYU study with patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease (who initially showed abnormal visual-cognitive functions and eye movement) measured significant improvement in eye tracking, Navon test performance, and UPDRS scores [5]. There was also an improvement in functional connectivity within brain networks associated with attention and control [5]. Art therapy is also associated with an increase in telomere length after 3 months (telomere shortening is typically an indicator of biological aging) [6].


Where do these results come from? Why is art so effective?


Art therapy is said to decrease levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Conversely, it is said to increase levels of serotonin and β-endorphin, which are pain-relieving and mood regulating hormones [7]. But art therapy doesn’t only influence hormone-level changes– it also impacts the overall neural connections in both hemispheres of the brain. It engages the sensory responses by utilizing the motor cortices, thalamus, hypothalamus and basal ganglia, which therefore leads to the physical differences that an ill patient would notice [8].


However, art therapy might not be appealing to everybody. Some don’t feel artistically talented enough to make art, and others simply aren’t interested in art. Further, women are more likely than men to participate in art therapy when it is offered [1].


Art therapy serves as a testament to the impact of creativity on health, as art in general creates lasting effects on mental and physical health. For music lovers, studies have shown that heart rate levels, respiratory levels, myocardial oxygen demand, blood pressure, and anxiety can be reduced in coronary heart disease patients after just 20 minutes of relaxing music [9]. Music is also a strong stimulus for neuroplasticity, the growth of neural networks which is important for the rehabilitation of brain injury patients [7]. Those who engage in visual arts have the potential benefits of decreased stress and a more positive outlook on life. Dancing also relieves stress and anxiety, while practicing emotional/creative writing is known to result in an increase in CD4+ lymphocyte counts, which is vital to immune system defenses [10].


Art tends to be overlooked in the medical field, despite consistent evidence that it carries both physical and emotional benefits. Science and art intertwine in ways we haven’t even discovered yet.


In summary, art therapy highlights three factors integral to the improvement of patient care: the importance of social and emotional factors on health, the mind-body connection, and the entwining of science and art. An increasing amount of evidence supports the idea that mental and emotional well-being is also crucial to overall health and recovery, and art can be our healthcare system’s key to bridging the gaps between them all. Allowing art to heal our minds and bodies therefore helps us understand the importance of sociocultural factors in patient outcomes. Understanding the pain experienced by hospitalized people, especially the chronically ill, requires that we look further than traditional biomedical approaches– and art can be our next solution.


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