By Kerry Hussain – Founder, Art For The Soul
Unlocking the secret power of art can seriously improve your health.
If you want less stress in your life, you need more art.
For thousands of years humans have used art to communicate, for ceremony and celebration, to record details of our existence and as a form of expression. Now there is increasing evidence to suggest that visual art also has the potential to heal us from daily stress and even past trauma. Put simply, art is good for you.
Mental health issues are at an all time high, with the World Health Organisation reporting in March 2022 that there has been a 25% increase in anxiety disorders worldwide. While this is largely due to the pandemic, it is a growing problem and new ways are being sought to combat it. Art therapy has been used for many years as a way to help those suffering: expressing emotion through creativity offers a profound release and can be a powerful mood booster.
My own work as an artist is born from a long (ongoing) healing process. I suffered from severe depression for many years and, during a particularly traumatic period, I was guided back to the one thing that had always comforted me as a child – making art.
When I was young it was a coping mechanism: drawing pencil portraits in meticulous detail was a way of maintaining an element of control and dissociating from the external chaos. Now itismy way of being present – a mental space where I canbe completely in the moment. The free, intuitive abstracts in my gallery today are a sign of improved mental hygiene and the desire to bring calm to others through art is central to my ethos.
However, you can still reap the benefits of art without demonstrating any creative abilities. In the last few years, it has been proven that simply looking at art can be just as effective as making it and it is becoming more common for doctors to prescribe visits to art galleries instead of medication for stress-related illnesses.
As well as assisting with mindfulness practice, art has the power to lift the mood and to increase self-awareness by allowing you to digest and process emotions.
The prescriptive art scheme, which was pioneered in Canada, has since been adopted by the UK and, most recently, Belgium. The results from the 2021 trial in Brussels have yet to be released but, thanks to numerous studies, we already know that time spent contemplating art can have a profound effect. One study, by the University of Westminster, reported that just 35 minutes passively engaging with art (a practice known as ‘slow-looking’) is enough to significantly lower cortisol levels. Heart rate and blood pressure also decrease and the nervous system comes back in to balance.
The ripple effect of releasing stress from your body improves not only your mental health but also your physical health. Inflammatory diseases, which are so common in today’s society, can be alleviated and even prevented.
HOW TO SELECT ART FOR STRESS RELIEF
When it comes to choosing art that will help to lower stress levels being able to connect to it on an emotional level is key. Quite often, it is difficult to explain why you like a specific piece in the same way that you are unable to define exactly why you find certain individuals more romantically attractive than others. Indeed, aesthetically pleasing art triggers the same physiological response as falling in love: blood flow to the brain increases by as much as ten percent and when the pleasure zones are activated, serotonin and dopamine (aka ‘the bliss chemicals’) are released.
Landscapes and scenes of nature are widely regarded as the best at invoking inner tranquility, with works by French Impressionist painter Claude Monet cited as among the most relaxing. A well-balanced composition is essential. Avoid anything that is too busy and pieces with heavy, angular lines for these can actually increase anxiety and tension. My own creations tend towards horizon lines or upward trajectories where it feels as though you are moving from dark to light, giving a soothing sense of optimism.
Regardless of the subject matter, colour can play a huge role here. Different hues can stimulate different emotions depending on the individual so it is important to become aware of how they make you feel on a personal level despite what definitions may be accepted across the board. For example, blue is regarded as a deeply restful and calming colour but for me, growing up on a small island surrounded by the sea with a lot of unhappy memories associated with that time, it triggers feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia. Recognising your ‘safe’ colours is crucial to finding art that will cultivate inner peace. It stands to reason that soft, muted colours will have a more calming effect that bright, vibrant ones. Pale pink is the colour of compassion and has been proven to reduce anger. If that feels too feminine, try natural, earthy tones to help you get grounded and increase your sense of safety and security.
WHAT IS VISUAL MEDITATION?
Visual meditation (not to be confused with visualisation, which is where you picture your desires in your mind’s eye) is a form of mindfulness that you can practice using art. This specific technique can be used in times of heightened stress as it forces you in to the present moment which in turn will de-excite the nervous system and bring it back in to balance. Particularly useful for those who find traditional meditation techniques difficult, visual meditation can have hugely significant benefits especially if combined with breath-work and/or affirmations. For example, if wanting to alleviate anxiety, focussing your attention on a painting with gentle green tones and repeating ‘I am’ affirmations like ‘I am safe’ and ‘ I am in control’ strengthens these emotions within the body. By using art as your anchor to the present moment you can get out of fight-or-flight mode, slow down and make decisions from a place of clarity.
Abstract paintings work especially well as a tool for visual meditation because your brain is put to work trying to make sense of what it is seeing, firing up the left and right sides simultaneously. Intentionally studying the strokes and colors in detail rather than the painting as a whole helps not to quiet the mind but rather to filter out the noise. If you find your thoughts wandering you can simply return to the now by refocusing on a particular colour or section just as you would when using a mantra. Using original paintings rather than prints can really supercharge the effects as the texture adds another element to focus on. Upon entering a relaxed ‘alpha’ state of mind your cognitive function can significantly improve, making it easier to solve problems and you can work on removing any negative blocks you may be experiencing.
Finding a few minutes to engage with art throughout your day can be remarkably beneficial and easy. Try keeping a small piece of artwork on your workspace or hang a larger one above it. You can even download one of your favourite pieces and use it as a screen saver for mindfulness breaks at work. While it may not replace medication for more serious conditions, using art as a tool for stress relief can make a big difference to your mental (and physical) state, making it a very valuable investment indeed.