The Effect of Art on Healing

Surgical Anatomy by J. Maclise 1859 Art, health, and healing are related. Say that out aloud in a public gathering and most people will nod enthusiastically. That art and music are great healing therapies for the body and soul is accepted as an undisputed “fact”. But is it really a “fact” or just something we feel must be true?

Stuckey and Nobel took a long, hard look at the connection between art, healing, and public health (Stuckey and Nobel, American Journal of Public Health, February 2010, vol 100, no 2, p254-263). These researchers compiled a review of qualitative and quantitative research studies (1995 to 2007) focused on the relationship between participation in the creative arts (e.g. painting, drawing, music, dancing) and health outcomes. What were they searching for? Proof (or the absence of proof) that participating in the creative arts does in fact play a role in physical healing. What did these researchers find? In rounding up and reviewing twelve years of research, Stuckey and Nobel came to the conclusion that artistic expression does have a positive effect on health. Obviously, the research is ongoing and we will continue to learn more with each new study conducted. If you are not interested in reading journal articles yourself, let me sum it up for you: the evidence indicates that creative engagement (i.e. actually participating in artistic activities) decreases anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances.

But what does a decrease in anxiety and stress have to do with the way you heal?

Everyone knows that too much stress is bad for our health, but most people think that stress only reduces our sense of well being. It turns out that stress doesn’t just make us feel bad on a head level. Stress actually plays a big role in how we heal on a physical level. Gouin and Kiecolt-Glaser, in their research on the impact of psychological stress on wound healing (Gouin and Kiecolt-Glaser, Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America, February 2011, vol 31, no 1, p81–93) found that psychological stress significantly delays the healing of wounds. Lucas’ research on psychological stress and wound healing (Lucas, Wounds, 2011, vol 22, no 4, p 76-83)  reported findings from three other studies linking anxiety and depression to delayed healing.  In simple terms, this means that stressed out, anxious people don’t just feel bad – they experience higher levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone) which has a negative effect on the immune system. The immune systems of stressed out, anxious people don’t work as well as they should, and as a result their bodies don’t heal as quickly as they could.

Surgical Anatomy by J. Maclise 1859The news today is that participating in a creative endeavor is good for you – not just in some distant, “good feeling” kind of way, but in a practical, clinically measurable way. Science supports this. Being creative will help to lower your stress levels and reduce your anxiety. When you are less anxious and stressed out, your immune system will work better. When your immune system works well, you fight disease more effectively and you heal faster. If you want to encourage physical healing, follow your medical team’s advice while you also do your part to reduce your stress and anxiety. Start small by including creativity into your life. Not sure how to be creative? No time for such “nonsense”? Definitely see yourself as a non-artistic personality? Too sick or too exhausted to still be “arty” and  creative at the end of a long day? Try an easy-to-use, stress-reducing tool such as “Healing Patterns: A Coloring Book for Adults“. Using this book requires no artistic skill (but you will need some colored pencils), and you stay in control: you decide how long to be “arty” each day. Take a step towards better health: be creative.

Illustrations: “Surgical Anatomy” by J. Maclise (a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) – published in Philadelphia by Blanchard and Lea in 1859.

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