Color, Cut and Mold the Stress Away

When it comes to reducing stress, you might do well to look at the activities of a 7-year-old.

Girija Kaimal, EdD, of the College of Nursing and Health Professions, recently received the American Art Therapy Association’s highest cash award for a preliminary study on how expressive art-making — whether it’s with markers or modeling clay — can alleviate stress.

“I really want people to see the health benefits of self-expression,” said Kaimal. “A lot of people, when they came to the study, said that they haven’t drawn anything or worked with their hands since they were in school.”

Kaimal’s research looks at visual art-making and how it affects the levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. There is research on changes in cortisol levels as a result of expressive writing and music therapy, but few studies focus on such outcomes in art therapy.

She hopes to bring a visibility to her field of study, something the American Art Therapy Association prize is sure to do.

Students, faculty and staff from the University between 18 and 60 years old participated in Kaimal’s study, which was funded through a career development award from Drexel’s Office of Faculty Development and Equity. They were given materials to create a collage from magazines, sculpt with Model Magic clay, or just draw freehand with markers on paper.

Saliva samples were taken before and after to measure cortisol levels. Juan Muniz, PhD, and Stella Volpe, PhD, of Drexel’s Department of Nutrition, used their labs to do the analysis of the samples’ biomarkers.

“With just 45 minutes of art-making, most participants’ cortisol levels went down,” Kaimal said. “That was with no skills or training or anything like that. People reported improved mood and reduced negative feelings. Also, people reported improved self-efficacy — they felt they could take on new challenges.”

On top of the pure data of the research, Kaimal also noted the actual art that was created.

“Each of these creations was like a testament to the human spirit,” she said. “You’d be amazed what people have created who thought they had no skills.”

Art obviously hits a soft spot for Kaimal, who completed an undergraduate degree in design in India before going on to receive a doctorate in human development and psychology from Harvard and a master’s in art therapy at Drexel.

“I’ve always used art as a form of expression for myself,” she said. “It’s a form of self-care and a way to make sense of the world. It’s not for everyone: Not everyone will jump up to do it. Some people are more into other forms of expression like music, dance, theater, sports, etc.”

Kaimal noted that there was a small group of study participants whose cortisol levels actually increased during the art-making.  She hopes to explore that section of the study further in addition to her other findings through brain imaging with the help of the award.

“My work spans education and health with the link being the arts,” Kaimal said. “It’s about what we can learn from the arts and what we can learn about ourselves through creative self-expression.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 Drexel Quarterly.