ART 1260
10 Jul 2024

How does art help the parasympathetic nervous system?

5 mins to read
Discover how engaging in art can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and enhancing overall well-being.

If you have ever engaged in some form of art, whether it be painting, colouring in, or visiting an art museum, you may recall a sense of calm on each occasion. Understanding these tranquil effects of art involves understanding the parasympathetic nervous system of our body and how it helps us to relax.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls automatic processes in our body that we don't think about, such as digestion and breathing. The parasympathetic nervous system works both in partnership and in the opposite way to the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is activated during times of stress, whether it be an interview, helping a loved one during a medical situation or trying to catch the train before it leaves the station. It helps prepare our body to physically and mentally cope with and get through the perceived threat or danger, most commonly known as the "fight or flight" response.

For instance, it raises your heart rate, diverts energy from its liver stores to other body parts that need it, and dilates the pupils to keep your body on high alert.

How the parasympathetic nervous system works to calm the body

Thankfully, we also have the parasympathetic nervous system that can help bring our bodies down to a state of relaxation. As the Hospital for Special Surgery in the US explains, it helps control the body's ability to relax and to bring the body to what is commonly known as the "rest and digest" state.

The parasympathetic nervous system works by downregulating the stress response. According to the Hospital for Special Surgery, it tells the brain what is happening and what to do via the vagus nerve, which sends impulses from the brain to the body and back from the body to the brain. 

Problems can occur when the body is constantly under stress, and the parasympathetic nervous system cannot intervene to stop the stress.

How to improve the function of the parasympathetic nervous system

It's about finding an activity that puts the parasympathetic nervous system into practice to help reinforce the system. This can be anything that lets you switch off, decompress and relax. Activities that put you into a meditative state, or state of flow, with minimum sensory and mental input are ideal.

You will likely find that, among the busyness of your daily life, you will feel the soothing benefits of spending 5-10 minutes on a relaxing activity.

How art can activate the parasympathetic nervous system

Art is one activity that can significantly aid in helping the body to return to a state of rest and calm. 

A ystematic review of art intervention studies found that participating in art activities can help reduce stress. The activities ranged from drawing to clay art to music and creative arts such as dance therapy. 

In addition, studies have shown that patients with newly creative outlets had increased dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is often low in patients with excessive stress.  

The Sage Neuroscience Center also points out studies that have shown that cortisol levels were lower in those who engaged in some sort of art. Cortisol is the hormone released during stress.

Ways to incorporate art into your lifestyle

There is not one type of art activity that works best for inducing calm. Have fun experimenting and trying different art activities to find the one you enjoy most. This may help increase the likelihood of you engaging it. We could all do with a bit of art in our day to help us de-stress from our busy days, and it could be as simple as colouring a page of a colouring book.

Here are some more ideas and creative ways of engaging with art to bring peace and calm into your day. You don't need to be an artist for this to work. Relax, unleash your creativity, feel how art can help you slow down and the soothing benefits that flow from this.

Colouring in

Colouring may seem like a children's activity, but it can help the brain slow down, thereby leading to engagement in mindfulness, which can help relieve stress. If you have children, this can double as an enjoyable activity to do with them, promoting relaxation in both of you at the end of a long day.

Going to the theatre, a concert or a comedy show

According to MQ Mental Health Research, a UK research charity organisation, participating in group creative activities can promote feelings of community and connection, which can positively impact stress management

Painting or drawing or doodling

Expressing emotions and feelings through painting, drawing, or doodling can relieve stress or tension. It doesn't have to be structured; just starting with moving your paintbrush or pencil and seeing where it goes from there can help by taking your attention to something new.

Clay or ceramic work, knitting, crafts, sewing

As MQ Mental Health Research explains, engaging in creative tasks, including those that create a piece of art, can help shift the focus away from negative thoughts and promote feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction.

More art activity ideas to soothe the mind and body

Further ideas for engaging in art for stress relieving benefits include the following, all of which help you to slow down, direct your attention away from stress, and promote mindfulness to help you become more present in the moment rather than outside worries.

  • Listening to music
  • Singing
  • Dancing 
  • Visiting an art museum
  • Sculpting
  • Scrapbooking
  • Photography



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