How creating art can reduce your stress levels

inktuition artCrayons, felt tips, watercolours, acrylic, clay or chalk: whatever material or medium you use, the act of creating a piece of art can help to reduce your stress levels. And that’s whether you’re a gifted artist or not, according to a new study.

Researchers from Drexel University measured the stress hormone (cortisol levels) in 39 study participants aged 18 to 59 to gauge the impact of making art on their stress levels. Basically, the higher the cortisol, the higher the stress in an in individual.

Half of the participants had little experience in creating art, and the activities in the experiment included clay modelling, drawing with marker pens, and making collages. They were given free rein to create anything they wanted.

The results showed that 75% of participants experienced lower cortisol levels after 45 minutes of art – with younger people benefiting most. One participant said that through making art he felt less anxious and more able to put things into perspective.

The researchers said: “While there was some variation in how much cortisol levels lowered, there was no correlation between past art experiences and lower levels.” There was no correlation with the materials used either.

This survey goes some way to proving the theory behind art therapy, or any other expressive therapy, that anyone can benefit therapeutically – irrespective of talent, skill or prior experience.

Time to pick up those pencils…

Why uncertainty creates the worst kind of stress

davanti counselling uncertainty

Not knowing what will happen is more stressful than inevitable pain. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/dream designs)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So Alfred Hitchcock famously said, in relation to the suspense in his movies. And yet this quote has tremendous resonance for those of us living with the terror of uncertainty. Not knowing what will happen, or if something will happen, is far worse than knowing pain is on its way and having to deal with it. This is backed by research from University College London (UCL) proving that “uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain”.

The researchers asked 45 participants to play a computer game that involved turning over rocks that might or might not have snakes underneath them. The volunteers received a mild electric shock on the hand every time there was a snake. The rocks changed each time, to increase levels of uncertainty. The study measured how stressed participants would be from getting shocks, and also the stress caused by the uncertainty around when or if they would get the shocks. The conclusion was that uncertainty causes more stress than knowing what’s going to happen to you.

Study lead author Archy de Berker, from UCL’s Institute of Neurology, says: “Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t.”

Co-author Dr Robb Rutledge adds: “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

Anxiety can affect your ability to make good decisions

davanti counselling anxiety and decisions

The part of the brain responsible for flexible decision making is affected by anxiety. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

Anxiety is known for its impact on our emotions, especially its connection with fear, but new research suggests that anxiety can also affect the brain’s ability to make good decisions.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh did a study into a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is said to be “critical for flexible decision making”. They monitored this region of the brain in anxious rats who had to make decisions how to get a reward. The rats completed the task – as people living with anxiety would also complete tasks – but they made more mistakes in their decision making than the non-anxious rats “when the correct choice involved ignoring distracting information”. The scientists concluded that anxiety leads to bad decisions when there are distractions going on. And bad decisions made under anxiety would numb and weaken the PFC neurons responsible for making choices – which seems to be creating an anxious loop.

“We’ve had a simplistic approach to studying and treating anxiety. We have equated it with fear and have mostly assumed that it over-engages entire brain circuits,” said study author Bita Moghaddam, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience. “But this study shows that anxiety disengages brain cells in a highly specialised manner. Human anxiety is devastating, not merely because of how the person feels, but also because it can interfere with nearly all aspects of daily life, including decision-making.”

My conclusion from this is that we will all suffer anxious moments, and even periods of distressing anxiety. The key is not to identify with the anxiety, and not to act from those anxious feelings. Take time for the anxiety to subside, and then take stock and make a choice from there.

How anxious people perceive the world differently

davanti counselling anxiety over generalisation

Anxious people tend to over-generalise in their response to emotional experiences. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

If you suffer anxiety, chances are you’re more highly attuned to threats, and find it difficult to manage heightened emotion when you feel unsafe. New research shows that anxious people don’t just follow the “better safe than sorry” rule. It’s the way their brains work when it comes to discriminating between what’s threatening and what’s safe that’s the issue. In short, they ‘overgeneralise’

Researchers from the Weizzman Institute of Science in Israel asked people with anxiety to associate three different sound tones with three different outcomes. One was money loss, one money gain, and one was no consequence. They then heard new tones and had to decide if they’d heard the tone before. If correct, they won money. Anxious people were more likely to believe they’d heard one of the new tones earlier – and were more likely to mistake that tone for one associated with money loss or gain. No participant had a hearing issue, and so the difference in perception was due to linking differently to an emotional experience. In the real world, this means that anxious people don’t or can’t differentiate between new and old stimuli, and they can over-generalise an emotional experience whether it is new, old or threatening.

Study lead Rony Paz said: “Anxiety patients respond emotionally to such new stimuli as well, resulting in anxiety even in apparently irrelevant new situations. Importantly, they cannot control this, as it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.”

The study was reported on Science Daily from the full report published by Cell Press journal Current Biology.

How to use a poem to contain overwhelming emotions

Writing a structured poem can help contain overwhelming emotions.

Writing a structured poem can help emotions feel more contained.

Writing things down, especially negative thoughts, feelings and emotions, can make us feel better. Just picking up a pen and writing what comes to mind can be incredibly cathartic and therapeutic, and can help you put into words what you really feel.

To get into the spirit of National Poetry Day, how about attempting to express your feelings in a poem? The structure and discipline of poetry can offer containment to difficult or overwhelming emotion, and can provide a tremendous feeling of release and satisfaction. It can help provide meaning on the page from the chaos in your mind.

There is a poem structure called the acrostic poem. Here’s how to make it work for you:

  • Identify an emotion you’re feeling, or have felt.
  • Pick one word that sums up that emotion.
  • Write the letters of that word vertically down a page of A4 paper.
  • Allow all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories and images you associate with that emotion to spill onto a separate page.
  • Place some of those words and phrases next to the letters of your emotion.
  • Fill in the other letters with phrases that fit your emotion, as you’re feeling it right now.

Here’s an example, with the emotion ANXIETY:

ANXIETY

And here I am again.

No closer to the reassurance I need:

X-raying all my closest

Interactions to see if they can

Ever be any better.

Truly tired of being inside my head.

Yearning for some peace instead.

The poem will help to ‘ground’ the emotion you’re feeling through the structured engagement with the initial letters of the word. Writing about an emotion in this way names it, captures it, and takes it power away.

How to cope with a day of feeling discombobulated

Too much going on – and not achieving anything –  can leave you feeling discombobulated (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

Too much going on – and not achieving anything – can leave you feeling discombobulated (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/jesadaphorn)

Had one of those days when you felt frustrated, blocked, irritated, a little emotional, and generally out of sorts? But not quite sure what was underneath it all? A day when you were pulled in multiple directions, without knowing which way to turn?

You weren’t pressured enough to call it stress, and your irritation wasn’t strong enough to be classed as anger. You weren’t on on top of your game, and you’d lost contact with your usual brilliance. You were a little impatient, and you may have put it down to tiredness. Or maybe something else entirely. You might be feeling feeling confused and perplexed as to why carefully laid plans just weren’t working out. Someone you were relying on let you down unexpectedly. Or you felt you had to compromise your authenticity in a situation that has now left you wondering why.

A possible (though multi-syllabic) way to put a name on what you’re feeling is to call it ‘discombobulated’. It’s a word that sums up the kind of generalised anxiety that you can’t put your finger on, but you know that something isn’t quite right. Feeling discombobulated can be a low-level but disconcerting fear of something not working out the way you’d like it to, and you may not have control of the outcome.

Here’s what I recommend for coping with a day of feeling discombobulated: (more…)

Picky eating in kids is linked to depression and anxiety

Making food more fun won't necessarily help to 'cure' children's picky eating (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/marcolm)

Making food more fun won’t necessarily help to ‘cure’ children’s picky eating (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/marcolm)

Food is often one of the first areas of life that kids can take control of. They can kick and scream when served anything green, or refuse to eat anything that isn’t served on their favourite plate. They might complain about the smell, the taste, the texture, and wrinkle their little noses in disgust. That kids mess around with food and sometimes refuse to eat it is not anything new. But rather than waiting for children to ‘grow out of it’, scientists are urging parents to do something about it, because picky eating – or ‘selective eating’ (SE) – has now been linked to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and social anxiety. And girls are more susceptible than boys.

The research from Duke University among 917 children aged between two and five found that SE was reported by 20.3%, with 17.7% reporting moderate SE (a restricted diet only) and another 3% reporting severe SE (a restricted diet that limited their ability to eat with others). The study found that “moderate and severe levels of SE were associated with psychopathological symptoms (anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) both concurrently and prospectively”. The more severe the levels of SE, the higher the likelihood of mental conditions. Children with severe cases of picky eating were more than twice as likely to develop depression. Two other significant findings were that high maternal anxiety existed with children who had moderate or severe SE. And severe picky eaters were more likely to be girls than boys.

The researchers even go as far as saying that the term ‘picky eating’ is obsolete when the selective eating is moderate or severe – as the fact that children are eating selectively implies that they need some help. They instead think the condition should be labelled with the diagnosis used by psychiatrists (DSMV) as ‘avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder’. This doesn’t mean parents need to panic if their little one spits out a piece of carrot. It is just a way of remaining vigilant if problems persist or become deeper and more consistent – and seeking further advice and help where needed.

You can check out the full research study here: Psychological and Psychosocial Impairment in Preschoolers With Selective Eating.