Creativity Goes a Long Way to Lower Stress

Research shows that just 45 minutes of creative work lowers cortisol, an insidious stress hormone.

Posted in , Mar 25, 2018

Painting can ease stress

Cortisol could be described as a saboteur of a positive lifestyle. A steroid hormone, excess cortisol offers up a menu of negative effects, including decreased bone density, suppressed immunity and higher blood sugar. It also bears the nickname of “the stress hormone” because when we are anxious or depressed, cortisol levels spike. 

So. How can we keep cortisol as low as possible? One approach is to make art! Researchers at Drexel University have found that just 45 minutes of doing any sort of creative work significantly reduces cortisol levels in the bloodstream.

In their study, which was published in 2016, cortisol lowered in participants regardless of their previous art-making experience. The finished product wasn’t a factor either—the idea of focusing on “process, not product” when doing creative work was supported by the study.

It can be hard to let go of the results of our efforts. When we sit down to make something, we want it to be a worthwhile use of our time, energy and materials. But what this and other studies remind us is that the final product of our artistic endeavor isn’t the only measure of whether a creative project was “worth it.” Just as meaningful—arguably moreso—is the impact that artistic time has on our emotional wellbeing, and literally on our brain chemistry.

I recently attended a weekend retreat with my synagogue, and part of the time was spent making art. Not great art, not hang-it-on-the-wall art, but the kind of art that expressed some part of what was inside each of us, the kind that had us surprised when the allotted time was up. I’d wager that if someone had taken a blood sample after each session, my cortisol level would have been enviable.  

“Creativity takes courage,” said Henri Matisse. What would you make if you had 45 minutes to create? What would you let go of if cortisol loosened its stressful grip on your body?

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