Painting with watercolors. Playing the piano. Dancing. Writing a story or poem. These activities may sound like they are just pleasant pastimes, but medical experts now say that artistic expression can improve heart health. Can you picture it — instead of a prescription for statins or a hypertension drug, your doctor sends you home with instructions to make a collage?
This natural drug-free concept is the brainchild of cardiology expert Harlan M. Krumholz, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology and public health (cardiology) at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. Dr. Krumholz also is on the board of directors of the Foundation for Art & Healing, which explores the connection between creative expression and healing. Dr. Krumholz explained that there’s good, hard science supporting this premise. “Studies have demonstrated that acute or chronic stress can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease,” he said. “We know, for example, that the acute emotional distress of broken heart syndrome can damage the heart, stress from events like earthquakes can cause a spike in the number of heart attacks and, similarly, the trauma of serious illness can shock your system, as it makes you aware of your vulnerability and mortality.”
ART & YOUR HEART: HAPPY TOGETHER
Art can be a way to reduce such stress. Dr. Krumholz said, “If stress is bad for you, then creative pursuits are the opposite — creative pursuits allow people to find their ‘flow state,’ a mental state in which they are so fully involved in an activity that they become unaware of passing time.” Stress and flow are mutually exclusive, he noted — spending time unstressed, with the benefits of lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and deeper respiration, improves immune function, reduces anxiety and worry and can result in reduced risk for heart disease.
“The mind-body connection is fascinating, and heart disease, in particular, has a special connection with the mind,” Dr. Krumholz said. “We’re too often leaping to the next drug. It’s valuable to explore how lifestyle strategies such as engaging in creative arts may favorably influence risk.”
WHAT SCIENTISTS KNOW
A considerable body of evidence supports these ideas. We know that…
Art helps you to process feelings about experiences that are too difficult to put into words, and it also can be a refuge from the intense emotion associated with illness. In a study of women with cancer, researchers found that working with textiles and making cards, collages, pottery, watercolors or acrylics helped relieve participants of their preoccupation with illness while also enhancing their self-worth. Their artistic endeavors provided opportunities for achievement… gave them a social identity that was not defined by their cancer… and allowed them to express feelings that might otherwise be too upsetting to face.
Dance and creative movement bring mind-body benefits. Music has the power to change how you feel, as we all have experienced… and avid athletes know that endorphins (brain chemicals created during exercise) improve mood. Combining these two can be a way to express your emotions while also realizing the health benefits of music and exercise.
Writing about traumatic experiences produces significant improvements in mood and health. Dozens of studies have shown that “emotional writing” (also called expressive writing) can reduce frequency of doctor visits, improve immune function, reduce levels of stress hormones and blood pressure and lift a depressed mood. You can try journaling, poetry or just jotting down your thoughts, and you don’t need to worry about editing yourself — it’s the process of being creative and expressive that’s so valuable.
You can start applying this premise to your life now. As Dr. Krumholz pointed out, there’s no limit to the ways you can engage in art in your life. “Find a pursuit that fits your interests, and don’t worry about how others judge your performance,” he urged. “Everyone has an inner life, ideas and a capacity to be artistic in some way.” Just as with the children who draw, paint and sing simply because they like doing it, this is all about the process, not the product. Your art doesn’t have to be “good” to be good for you. Free the artist within… and see what a difference it can make!