Find a Calming Escape with Art or Music Therapy
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” - Pablo Picasso
I’m sitting at my desk, humming along to the Broadway show tunes Pandora radio station that’s playing from my phone. Paintbrush in hand, I swirl the tip in a mason jar full of water, then push its bristles into the tray of watercolors in front of me. It feels like I’m a kid again - all my focus is on where I’ll put the paint next, and how much I like seeing the colors emerge onto the page, regardless of the final outcome.
As an adult, I’ve had to re-learn what I knew so clearly as a child: how art and music make me feel connected to the present moment. Many of us have busy lifestyles characterized by anxiety and stress, so if you’re like me, you might have forgotten that setting aside time to engage in these activities will help you feel less frazzled and more relaxed.
Both art and music therapy can be adapted for use in your everyday life if you are willing to give them a chance. Let’s look at some of the scientifically established benefits of each.
A 2016 article published in the journal Art Therapy demonstrated that 75% of 39 adult participants in a study experienced lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after only 45 minutes of art-making. Though a trained art therapist was on hand for any questions, there were no explicit instructions given to those who participated regarding what to make, or how to make a final product using the available markers, paper, collage materials, and clay.
According to the study, prior levels of experience art making had no bearing on whether the participants experienced these benefits, and no correlation was found between the types of art materials used and higher levels of cortisol.
While this was a smaller study, two researchers in the American Journal of Public Health analyzed articles from 1995 to 2007 to explore the health benefits of different forms of arts-based interventions. Though the research they reviewed mostly took place in hospital rather than community settings, e.g. arts interventions for cancer patients, they concluded that the studies appeared to show that “creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances” and were an effective and promising complement to the biomedical treatments patients were receiving.
In traditional art therapy, a therapist works with an individual and selects an appropriate art activity for the client based on his or her needs. If you don’t have a referral or a need to go to a professional at this time, it seems promising to me that you can experience the benefits of art as a therapeutic practice at your own home, simply by setting aside some time to create something. Psych Central has three helpful activities you can try for yourself.
Music therapy is a subset of art therapy that has been widely studied for its effectiveness in improving well being, reducing anxiety, and boosting your mood. I think we can all identify with the oxytocin-boosting practice of cranking your favorite feel-good tunes or singing loudly at the top of your lungs. Like with art therapy, there are certified music therapists that you can see when needed, who can help clients with listening to, performing, or composing music based on their background and training.
If you’re looking for a way to incorporate music therapy into your daily life, something I’ve started to do more and more is use specific music as a way to relax and focus when I want to wind down, especially as I go to sleep. I’m currently using an app called Brain.fm, which has designed music for focus, relaxing, meditating, sleeping, or recharging. It’s free for your first ten sessions and then you have to pay a monthly or yearly fee.
It’s become worth it for me, but if you’re looking for something free, you can also check out this track called ‘Weightless” on YouTube. It’s by a group named Marconi Union who worked sound designers to make it particularly relaxing. A UK study conducted by a group called Mindlab International found that it helped lower anxiety by 65% in participants who were attempting to solve difficult puzzles.
HEALING NATURALLY FROM STRESS
The root of the word “heal” actually comes from an old English word “healen”, which means “wholeness” or “to make whole.” For me, art and music are two important ways that I take time for myself to restore my sense of wholeness in a frantic world that’s always competing for my attention. I’ve come to accept that stress and anxiety will never go away entirely, but nor would I want it to! Some stress actually can be a catalyst for action or for a more meaningful life, and that’s why it’s important to look for easily accessible tools to help you manage your anxiety naturally and effectively.
Photo by Jared Sluyter