How Art Can Improve Your Mental Health

When Dr. Frank Clark was in medical school studying to be a psychiatrist, he decided to write his first poem. “All that chatter that is in my head, everything that I’ve been feeling, I can now just put it on paper and my pen can do the talking,” he said, recalling his thoughts at the time.

Back then, he was struggling with depression and had been relying on a number of things to keep it at bay, including running, therapy, medication and his faith.

“I had to find something else to fill the void,” he said. It turned out that poetry was the missing piece in his “wellness puzzle.”

“I saw an improvement in my mood,” said Dr. Clark, who now sees patients in Greer, S.C. “It gave me another outlet.”

The notion that art can improve mental well-being is something many people intuitively understand but can lose sight of — especially if we have become disconnected from the dancing, creative writing, drawing and singing we used to enjoy as children.

But there’s a “really robust body of evidence” that suggests that creating art, as well as activities like attending a concert or visiting a museum, can benefit mental health, said Jill Sonke, research director of the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine.

Here are a few simple ways to elevate your mood with the arts.

Dr. James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and the founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, pioneered something called the “three drawing technique.” It is featured in the new book “Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us.”

“In my experience, art like this goes beyond words in helping us to understand what’s going on with ourselves and to understand what we should do with it,” Dr. Gordon says in the book.

You don’t need to be good at drawing — stick figures are OK.

Start by quickly drawing yourself; don’t overthink it. The second drawing should show you with your biggest problem. The third drawing should show you after your problem has been solved.

This exercise is meant to encourage self-discovery and help give people agency in their own healing — and you can do it with or without a therapist, said Susan Magsamen, an assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a co-author of the book.

If you are one of the many people who have turned to adult coloring books, it may not come as a surprise that research suggests this activity can help ease anxiety.

Coloring within the lines — of an intricate pattern, for example — appears to be especially effective. One study that evaluated college students, and another that assessed older adults, found that spending 20 minutes coloring a mandala (a complex geometric design) was more helpful at reducing anxiety than free-form coloring for the same length of time.

Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food,” described coloring as a “mini mental vacation.” When we focus on the texture of the paper and choose the colors that please us, it becomes easier to tune out distractions and stay in the moment, she said.

“It’s a great form of meditation for people who hate meditation.”

Listening to music, playing an instrument or singing can all be beneficial, research shows.

A 2022 study, for example, surveyed more than 650 people in four age groups and asked them to rank the artistic activities that helped them “feel better” during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. The youngest participants, ages 18 to 24, overwhelmingly rated musical activities as most effective. Across all age groups, “singing” was ranked among the top activities.

Other studies have found that singing reduces levels of cortisol, a hormone that the body releases when it is under stress. As one example, mothers who had recently given birth and regularly sang to their babies had less anxiety.

Ms. Magsamen noted that music can be effective at reducing stress because things like rhythm and repetitive lyrics and chords engage multiple regions of the brain.

“I sing in the shower,” Ms. Magsamen said. “I sing at the top of my lungs to the radio.”

Dr. Clark has continued to write poetry since graduating from medical school and offered some tips for those interested in trying.

First, banish any thoughts that you aren’t creative enough. “I think a lot of times we are our own worst critic,” he said. “I believe anybody can write poetry.”

Start with a simple haiku, Dr. Clark suggested. Haikus consist of just three lines — the first and last lines have five syllables and the middle has seven.

Consider involving your friends, too — a suggestion from a 2020 paper in the Journal of Medical Humanities that explored poetry’s “healing power.”

As the authors wrote, “Simply by reading a poem once a week, sharing a poem with a friend, or spending five to ten minutes to free write about a favorite memory, a current idea, a worry or hope, can all be effective first steps in experiencing the benefits of poetry.”

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