The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health

January 12, 2022 – Los Angeles: Art and health have been at the center of human interest from the beginning of recorded history. Despite that fact, and despite the invested effort and growth of knowledge and understanding in each arena, it is interesting that we often still find ourselves struggling with the “fundamentals” of art and health and their meaning in society. We make no attempt to clarify or resolve these fundamental issues. Instead, our intent is to summarize current knowledge about the connection between art and health.

MUSIC ENGAGEMENT

Music is the most accessible and most researched medium of art and healing, and there has been a principal emphasis on the soothing capacity of music and its ability to offset overly technological approaches to care. In particular, music therapy has been shown to decrease anxiety. The pleasure shared by participants in the healing process through a music therapy program can help to restore emotional balance as well. There is also evidence of the effectiveness of auditory stimulation, together with a strong suggestion that such stimulation abolishes pain, as a strategy for achieving control over pain.

In addition, it has been shown that music can calm neural activity in the brain, which may lead to reductions in anxiety, and that it may help to restore effective functioning in the immune system.

VISUAL ARTS

Art helps people express experiences that are too difficult to put into words, such as a diagnosis of cancer.

Art can be a refuge from the intense emotions associated with illness. There are no limits to the imagination in finding creative ways of expressing grief. In particular, molding clay can be a powerful way to help people express these feelings through tactile involvement at a somatic level, as well as to facilitate verbal communication and cathartic release and reveal unconscious materials and symbols that cannot be expressed through words.

MOVEMENT-BASED CREATIVE EXPRESSION

A growing interest in dance and movement has accompanied recognition of the mind and body benefits of motor activity. Movement-based creative expression focuses on nonverbal, primarily physical, forms of expression as healing tools. Through the movement of mind and body in a creative way, stress and anxiety can be relieved, and other health benefits can be achieved as well.

A unique study involving the use of theater investigated the benefits of a short-term intervention for adults aged 60 to 86 years that targeted cognitive functioning and quality of life issues important for independent living. The theater component consisted of demanding exercises designed to have participants experience the essence of acting (i.e., to become engrossed in the drama). In the visual arts component, participants speculated on the intention of the art or commented on an ambiguous image.

After 4 weeks of instruction, those given theater training exhibited significantly greater gains than members of the no-treatment control group on both cognitive and psychological well-being measures, specifically word and listening recall, problem-solving, self-esteem, and psychological well-being.

EXPRESSIVE WRITING

Studies have shown that individuals who have written about their own traumatic experiences exhibit statistically significant improvements in various measures of physical health, reductions in visits to physicians, and better immune system functioning.

Writing increases health and wellness in varied ways.

Expressive writing can improve control over pain, depressed mood, and pain severity. For example, in a pair of randomized controlled trials, patients were assigned to write about either emotional or nonemotional topics. Results showed greater improvements in control over pain and depressed mood, and marginally greater improvements in pain severity, in the anger expression. These findings suggest that expressing anger may be helpful for individuals suffering from chronic pain, particularly if it leads to meaning-making.

Another form of expressive writing, poetry, has long played a role in the art of healing. Several authors have described the use of poetry to help people find their voice and gain access to the wisdom they already have but cannot experience because they cannot find the words in ordinary language.

Finding one’s voice via poetic means can be a healing process because it opens up the opportunity for self-expression not otherwise felt through everyday words. One British hospital introduced poetry into the culture of the hospital so that patients could experience other forms of literary work and perhaps experience healing through the short snippets of expressive words and emotions to which they could relate.

Expressive writing through journaling is another way to access the unconscious self. Journal writing has been linked to creativity, spiritual awareness, and expansion of the self. In two qualitative studies, journal writing helped participants identify and work through feelings, improve relationships, and learn new things about themselves.

CONCLUSION

Use of the arts in healing does not contradict the medical view in bringing emotional, somatic, artistic, and spiritual dimensions to learning. Rather, it complements the biomedical view by focusing on not only sickness and symptoms themselves but the holistic nature of the person. When people are invited to work with creative and artistic processes that affect more than their identity with illness, they are more able to “create congruence between their affective states and their conceptual sense making.”

Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing.

The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.


The above article represents a compilation of excerpts from The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature, by Heather L. Stuckey, DEd and Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH. Review the entire report here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/