Sunday, February 14, 2010

Artistic cures for health problems

It may be low-tech and sound like folklore, but a growing body of research is pointing to the value of artistic expression as a means of fighting deadly diseases. A new study has reviewed the evidence for a number of different forms of expression. Among the findings:

Soothing notes: Cancer patients who listen to relaxing music experience increased sense of control and wellness in hospitalized patients, reductions in pain, anxiety, psychological and physical symptoms, compared to similar patients who don’t “tune-out”. A small study of heart attack patients found that listening to music reduced stress, as measured by heart rates and temperature readings. And a second small study in coronary patients found that 20 minutes of music reduced heart and breathing rates, the heart’s demand for oxygen, and anxiety for at least 1 hour.

Enjoying the view: Creating visual art may provide an expressive outlet for fears or stressors, itself linked to lowered rates of chronic stress and associated poor health. Several studies of breast cancer patients have found that visual-art therapy increases a sense of optimism, self-confidence, and physical activity levels, while reducing pain and sleeplessness. Just being in the presence of art may help: critical care and surgery patients in rooms with landscape pictures on the walls required less pain control medication, and left the hospital sooner than equivalent patient in drab surroundings.

Writing from experience: Creative writing improves mood and health, this may in part be due to the pressure-outlet it provides for health-harming stress. But there may be more at play: Two randomized trials of patients in pain clinics found that patients who wrote about their experiences developed more control over their pain and depression. And a trial of HIV patients found that an emotional writing program led to measurable, clinically significant and sustained reductions in viral load over the course of the 6-month study.

This is just a sampling of the literature supporting the curative powers of the creative. Though they are of course far from conclusive, using art as an adjunct to regular therapies makes sense. There’re of course no side effects, and chronicling the way that an illness effects our experiences and perceptions can be a worthy exercise. On the best of days, creative expression helps define our individuality, and when disease threatens identity, reducing you to nothing more than a patient, creative expression can be existentially edifying. The potentially-curative powers of art also remind us that there are many dimensions to wellbeing, and we are well served by attending to the many faces of health.

What creative outlets make you feel healthy?

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