The Hippo


Jun 18, 2019








Relax with art
View, listen or create to unwind

By Kelly Sennott

Stressed out? Make something. Listen to something. See something.

There’s scientific proof that art can improve one’s feeling of wellness and relaxation, said Catherine O’Brian, Arts Education and Arts in Health Care coordinator with the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.
It’s evident in many Arts in Health Care programs. Concord Hospital’s “Infuse it with Music” program, for example, helps cancer patients relax; they listen to a live musician perform at their bedside while receiving chemotherapy. There are no concrete stats yet to back that the music makes a physical difference during infusion, but there are countless positive reviews from patients who said the sounds calmed them right down.
“You’re very much in the moment [with art],” O’Brian said during a phone interview. “It’s not very different from meditation.”
When you’re actively involved with art, you’re also making choices. O’Brian thinks lots of stress derives from feeling as though you’ve lost control.
Personally, O’Brian most enjoys singing and reading/writing poetry. The day of the interview, she’d read a bit of Maxine Kumin during her break to unwind and focus on something other than work and the holidays. 
Proof of how art acts as a de-stressor can also be seen in how high-ranking New Hampshire professionals use it to help unwind and relax. O’Brian pointed to Sara Willingham, director of personnel at the State of New Hampshire. 
Despite Willingham’s busy schedule — she has thousands working under her and is the mom of a teenage girl — she sings in a number of local groups. One is the Pemigewasset Choral Society, which she drives all the way from Concord to Plymouth every week to perform with. Another is the Concord Chorale, and another, the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus.
“I’ve always been involved with music,” Willingham said during a phone interview. “I played the piano growing up, and music was always a stress-reliever for me.”
Singing, Willingham said, is very physical and involves concentration on breathing. In this respect, it’s similar to yoga. 
“You feel really good afterward,” Willingham said. “It’s why people sing in the shower, in the car.”
It also focuses your concentration on one specific thing. There’s no time for anything else.
“You can’t be sad and crying while you’re singing,” Willingham said.
Then there’s a social connection.
“There’s been a lot of research about how art helps, socially,” O’Brian said. “You’re getting out of your isolation, feeling sorry for yourself … and you’re going somewhere and doing something with other people.”
Willingham also writes poetry. She said there’s something very satisfying about actively making art, whether singing, writing, painting or drawing, that forces you to focus only on what you’re doing. The other elements in your life seemingly fall away. 
She says poetry in particular can act an outlet to project what you’re feeling.
“I can take something I’m thinking about that feels stressful, or maybe some other emotion, and if I write about it, I can usually find some way of turning it around into a more positive experience,” Willingham said. “Even just the act of writing can make me feel better because I’m creating something.”
Merely viewing art — visual art, theater, film — can help take your mind off the things causing pressure.
“I think part of creating art is sharing it. It doesn’t even have to be art you do yourself, although I think that’s the best way to alleviate stress,” Willingham said. “There are often times I haven’t been able to devote as much time to the arts as I’d like, and those are the times I don’t feel as good. I’m not as happy, and I find the stress more difficult to deal with.” 
As seen in the January 8, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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