Feeling stressed? Get drawing. A new study suggests that creating art can reduce stress levels – regardless of a person’s artistic skill.

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Researchers found that a 45-minute art-making session reduced levels of cortisol – the “stress hormone” – for participants.

Published in the journal Art Therapy, the study found that just 45 minutes of art creation – such as making clay models or drawing – reduced levels of the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone.” Produced in the adrenal glands, situated above the kidneys, cortisol levels increase in response to stress. Therefore, the higher a person’s cortisol levels, the more stressed they are.

Previous studies have documented the stress-relieving potential of art. A 2010 review, for example, found that creative engagement – whether in the form of drawing, writing, or making music – can lower stress and anxiety, and improve mood.

Girija Kaimal, assistant professor of creative arts therapies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, and colleagues set out to gain a better understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying such findings.

For their study, the researchers enrolled 39 adults aged 18-59 years to a 45-minute art-making session.

Participants were provided with a selection of art materials, such as modeling clay, marker pens, and paper, and were told they could use them to create anything they wanted to.

The team notes that around half of the participants reported little experience in creating art.

Before and after the art-making session, researchers took saliva samples from each participant, which they used to measure cortisol levels.

The researchers identified a reduction in cortisol levels among 75 percent of the participants, indicating a reduction in stress. This finding remained even after accounting for participants’ experience of art-making.

Kaimal says they were partly surprised by these results. “It wasn’t surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting,” she notes.

“That said, I did expect that perhaps the effects would be stronger for those with prior experience.”

The remaining 25 percent of participants, however, demonstrated an increase in cortisol during the art-making session, but the researchers say this is to be expected, noting that cortisol is also needed for functioning.

Fast facts about stress
  • In the past month, 75 percent of Americans report having experienced at least one symptom of stress
  • 25 percent say stress has a large impact on their physical or mental health
  • Money worries are a leading cause of stress in the United States.

Learn more about stress

“For example, our cortisol levels vary throughout the day – levels are highest in the morning because that gives us an energy boost to us going at the start of the day,” Kaimal explains. “It could’ve been that the art-making resulted in a state of arousal and/or engagement in the study’s participants.”

Additionally, the team found some evidence that younger participants were more likely to experience a reduction in cortisol during art-making than older subjects.

Kaimal says one explanation for this finding might be that younger individuals are still identifying ways to manage stress and deal with day-to-day challenges, while older people – having had more life experience – may have found better ways to deal with stress.

Overall, the researchers say their findings suggest art-making may be an effective way to reduce stress, and they plan to investigate this association further in future studies.

“We want to ultimately examine how creative pursuits could help with psychological well-being and, therefore, physiological health, as well,” adds Kaimal.

Read about how an experimental drug could prevent stress-induced brain damage.