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Finding Your Medium: The Power of the Arts for Mental Wellness


By Emily Vecchiarelli

We are all too familiar with stress. Whether it was the time you started a new job, began graduate school, or were juggling coursework and family obligations, everyone has experienced challenges in one way or another. As millennials, however, we may be experiencing more stress than any current generation according to the American Psychological Association1. Young people between 15 and 24 are more likely to experience mental illness compared to other age groups2. Now, more than ever, we need to develop different abilities and strategies to effectively manage stress and prioritize our mental wellness.

So, what can we do to cope with stressful moments or overwhelming situations? Evidence suggests that getting a little creative might help. The potential for art and music to elicit emotional responses has long been recognized throughout history. Aristotle and Plato, for example, believed music could have a healing effect on the body and soul3. More recently, the arts have been recognized for their power to manage stress and promote mental wellness. Several hospitals have begun to incorporate art displays in waiting rooms and entrances, and some even offer art therapy classes. An exciting pilot study is underway in Canada in which a group of Montreal doctors are beginning to prescribe trips to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to help patients cope with a variety of mental health issues4. Research suggests that levels of depression and anxiety are lower in patients who had exposure to visual arts5.

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The arts are not just for patients, however, as the benefits extend to everyone. One study examined the effects of creative arts on levels of anxiety in undergraduate students. Participants chose to partake in a single 30-minute session of painting, clay modelling, collage-making, or drawing in the week prior to their final examinations. In comparison to participants in the control group who did not partake in any activity, anxiety levels were significantly reduced in the art group6. In a similar study of university students and staff, 45 minutes of creative arts notably reduced salivary cortisol levels, which is a marker of physiological stress7. Interestingly, cortisol levels were lowered irrespective of prior experience with art, suggesting creative arts could be an effective stress-reduction strategy for people regardless of skill level.

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life” ~ Pablo Picasso

One way art may be helping is through its ability to be relaxing, and to provide an engaging, creative activity that refocuses attention from stress- provoking thoughts to the task at hand5. Painting, creative writing, or playing music can increase self-esteem and encourage the development of problem-solving skills8. Moreover, visual arts production helps stimulate neuronal connectivity in the brain, and is associated with promoting psychological resilience9, which is an important attribute for coping with stress. While there is no defined ‘dosage’ of the arts required to reap its benefits for mental wellness, it seems that small amounts can be helpful. Just looking at art displays appear to have favourable effects5. More importantly, the best dosage of creativity is one that works best for you.

So what can we do to cope at times of pressure or when things seem overwhelming? Well, one way might be a blank canvas and a splash of paint.

Tips for Getting Creative:

  1. Go to a fun painting class. There are plenty across the GTA that you can attend, and you can bring a friend too!
  2. Adult colouring books are widely available for purchase and can be a great start. Try out the colouring page in this magazine.
  3. Painting to music is a great way to get your creativity flowing and can be quite calming.
  4. Collecting old or recycled materials around the house and building something new is a fun way to be creative and helps to change perspective.
  5. You don’t need to be the next Picasso to reap the benefits of the arts. Let your mind wander free and express whatever you feel!


  1. American Psychological Association. Stress in America, Generation Z. 2018, Available from:
  2. Pearson C, Janz T, and Ali J. Health at a glance: Mental and substance use disorders in Canada. Statistics Canada. 2013: 2-10.
  3. Conrad C. Music for healing: from magic to medicine. The Lancet. Perspectives. 2010, 376:1980-1981.
  4. The Canadian Press. Art galleries instead of the pharmacy: Montreal doctors to prescribe visits to museum. Global News. October 11, 2018. Available from: news/4539018/montreal-art-museum-doctors- prescription-project/
  5. Lankston L, Cusack O, Fremantle C, Isles C. Visual art in hospitals: case studies and review of the evidence. J R Soc Med. 2010, 103:490-499.
  6. Sandmire DA, Graham SR, Rankin NE, Grimm DR. The influence of art making on anxiety: a pilot study. Jour American Art Therapy Assoc. 2012, 29(2):68-73.
  7. Kaimal G, Ray K, Muniz J. Reduction of cortisol levels and participants’ responses following art making. Journal of American Art Therapy Association. 2016, 33(2):74-80.
  8. Ruppert S. Critical Evidence: How the Arts benefit student achievement. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. 2006,1-24. ISBN 0-9777050-05.

Featured in Issue 3: Anxiety