Can You Mend a Broken Heart Through the Arts?

Heart Beat

Music, painting, writing and other arts enrich our lives in so many ways. But they’re not only good for the soul; they can also enhance physical well-being, including heart health, and may even lower our risk of developing certain types of heart disease.

These heart-healthy benefits start with a calming influence. Whether we create art or simply enjoy it, the experience can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and bring heart palpitations under control. Reduction of stress is especially important since “acute or chronic stress can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease,” according to Harlan Krumholz, M.D., on the Bottom Line Inc website. Dr. Krumholz is a professor at Yale University School of Medicine and member of the board of directors of the Foundation for Art & Healing, an organization that studies the connection between creative expression and healing. He suggests that creative activities may provide an antidote to stress. “If stress is bad for you,” Dr. Krumholz says, “then creative pursuits are the opposite—creative pursuits allow people to find their ‘flow state,’ a mental state in which they are so fully involved in an activity that they become unaware of passing time.”

Music Does a Heart Good

Anyone who has had a massage at a health spa knows how the hypnotic tones of a New Age soundtrack can relax you. The right music can also provide therapeutic benefits for people who have had serious heart problems. A review of eleven studies found that music therapy significantly reduces systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and heart rate in a number of clinical settings. In one assessment of hospitalized patients who had recently suffered a heart attack, a group listening to relaxing music along with receiving standard care experienced significant reductions in heart rate, respiration rate and their hearts’ demand for oxygen compared to patients receiving standard care only. This difference was seen after just twenty minutes of listening and continued for one hour after the music was over.

Other research has isolated the benefits of music to the heart on a chemical level. After critically ill patients listened to slow movements of Mozart sonatas in a hospital setting, blood tests revealed increases in growth hormone and decreases in interleukin-6 (a protein that cause inflammation). These may indicate positive changes for cardiac health, since high levels of interleukin-6 are associated with congestive heart failure and growth hormone has been shown to normalize these levels.

Creative Expression Gets to the HeART of the Matter

Some investigations have explored how creative arts therapies affect levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that strains the heart when chronically elevated. Investigators at Drexel University  instructed a group of healthy adults to make art using collage materials, modeling clay and/or markers. Salivary cortisol levels were reduced significantly in 75% of the participants after 45 minutes of art making. Amount of art experience did not affect the results.

Art activities have also been shown to improve heart rate variability (HRV), an important measure of heart health. The HRV index is a marker for how well we can adapt to changes both in our brain activity and the environment around us, and a consistently low HRV increases the risk of developing future heart disease. Some research indicates that artistic expression with certain forms of media may elevate HRV to a heart-healthier level. One study, for example, found that participants using oil-based pastels experienced a greater positive effect on HRV compared to those engaged in gouache painting and pencil drawing. This may be due to the more tactile experience of using oil-based pastels, which allows a lot of freedom of expression as well as a sense of control.

Write Two Pages and Call Me in the Morning

Extensive research shows that writing about one’s emotions can reduce stress hormones and blood pressure. In one study of 156 patients who had recently experienced a myocardial infarction, one group was instructed to write about their thoughts and feelings related to their cardiac event, while a control group was told to write in a neutral way about daily activities. Five months after study completion, the experimental group reported significantly greater attendance at rehabilitation sessions, fewer cardiac-related symptoms and lower diastolic blood pressure. These findings demonstrate the importance of expressing one’s emotions, even on paper, when going through a life-threatening event.

Nature: Setting the Scene for Better Heart Health

Landmark research by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich in the 1980s showed that looking at a garden may accelerate healing after surgery. In a later study of patients in the ICU of a Swedish hospital, Dr. Ulrich narrowed his subject group to those recovering from heart surgery. Those who viewed large nature photographs of an open, tree-lined stream had less anxiety and needed less pain medicine than those looking at a darker forest photograph, abstract art or no pictures at all. The evidence on the value of nature to heart health overall has “grown” dramatically since. We now know, for example, that viewing a garden for only three to five minutes results can reduce blood pressure and muscle tension in healthy viewers.

Closing the Gap between ART and HeART

Many healthcare institutions and other organizations nationwide have embraced art programs. The University of Florida, for example, has a general arts in medicine program that addresses applications of music, painting, dance, theater, and other art forms in healing practice. For the younger set, Hip Hop Public Health promotes cardiovascular fitness and better eating habits with interactive hip hop songs, videos and games.

Across the northern border, a new Canadian initiative will enable doctors to give patients free access to local museums so they can immerse themselves in serenity-fostering creative works. Meanwhile, across the pond, a new program for doctors in Scotland’s Shetland Islands promotes the use of “Nature Prescriptions” that encompass everything from going outside to ponder a cloud to writing one’s worries on a stone and tossing it into the sea. A primary goal of this initiative: reducing the risk of heart disease.

While the “vital signs” for creative arts therapies look good, we need more rigorous, controlled studies to determine more specific applications of the arts as preventive and complementary therapies for heart disease. The beat goes on as we explore the possibilities of arts-based interventions to improve mind, body and spirit.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Contributor Ed Decker.  Ed Decker is a freelance neuroscience writer and former Science/Health Editor at Rewire Me, a wellness website.

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