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Make Art to De-Stress Your Mind

Oct 26, 2020 08:56PM ● By KLAUDIA BALOGH

What happens when the brain gets high on creativity

When children are drawing, coloring, painting or building a LEGO castle, it’s as if the whole world around them disappears. Nothing seems to matter but the lines, colors, shapes and building blocks. Children get lost in the moment of creation.

If those children become artists as adults, regardless of the medium they choose to work with, they will remember and understand that feeling of stillness that comes with being immersed in making art.

You don’t have to be an artist, however, to benefit from all the positive effects this form of creativity can have on your mind. A growing body of research has shown that activities as simple as coloring or dancing and singing can lower stress levels and help improve mental health.

With the coronavirus pandemic, quarantines, closures and demonstrations, we’re facing a health crisis like never before in this modern era. The level of stress, collectively as a society, has reached unprecedented levels. 

The uncertainties, unanswered questions, losses and sense of confusion, fear and worry keep your nervous system at a hyperactive state of fight or flight. This sympathetic automatic response is part of your innate biology that keeps you alive in the face of danger. When this response system is activated, your body releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase. These come in handy should you be facing a lion, for example. But in stressful situations like the world is experiencing now, a continued state of hyper-alertness results in chronically elevated stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure, which can further wreak havoc on your health if you don’t get it under control.

Contrary to what the experts used to think—that art activated the right, or creative, side of the brain—science, and the ability to map the human brain, now shows that various forms of art play a major role in multiple areas of the brain.

The brain is a fascinating system of neurological connections, which still isn’t fully understood. With advanced science and imaging, however, scientists can see inside the brain better than ever before. 

There are neural pathways, which are like roads in a busy metropolitan city, through which information gets transferred. That information will lead to either a physical or emotional response. Some are automatic—reflexes, for example, like a knee jerk or goosebumps in a cold environment—while others may change over time. 

The brain has the ability to create new connections between cells—neuroplasticity—and engaging in a creative activity can stimulate new communications between various parts of the brain. This can increase both psychological and emotional resilience. 

How art affects the mind and body depends on its form. Playing music increases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which is the brain’s pleasure center. Additionally, researchers have found that playing Mozart, for example, reduces heart rate and blood pressure.

Playing music, dancing and singing have been part of humanity from the beginning of time. Think tribal rituals and celebrations. These activities relieve stress by increasing levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin. Choreographing moves and following a rhythm also help develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory and spatial recognition.

Additionally, singing activates the vagus nerve and increases vagal tone. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body. It connects the brain to various organs, such as the heart, lungs and gut. What does it have to do with singing? It’s also connected to the vocal cords and the muscles at the back of the throat. Singing just a few tracks will increase vagal tone that may improve mental health.

An activity as simple as grabbing a pencil, paint brush or coloring set and paper can trigger a relaxation response. Studies have shown that the repetitive motion of drawing and coloring, or even cursive writing, helps synchronize the hand and eyes and lower the brain’s stress response. 

These art forms have one thing in common: they all evoke a sense of being in the present. Most of what creates stress is being stuck in the past or being worried about the future. A proven way to distance yourself from those feelings is to be in the now and focus on what you have at hand.

Think of it as active meditation. Sitting in silence and quieting the mind may be a difficult start for many, so doing art can be the perfect alternative.

Chances are that if you decide to have an artsy afternoon or evening, or just a sing-along party at home or in the car, it’ll boost your mood and fire up all the feel-good chemicals in your brain. Take a playful lesson from your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews and let your mind be a kid again. 

Klaudia Balough is a health and fitness writer for TOTI Media.

Artistic Activities for Stress Relief

  • Dancing
  • Singing
  • Doing a puzzle
  • Drawing/Doodling
  • Coloring
  • Painting
  • Writing a poem
  • Photography