I’ve never been particularly artistic — my best attempt at “art” is drawing stick figures in front of a lopsided house. Perhaps because of my innate lack of artistic ability, I have always shied away from any activity that even remotely required artistic skills. Yet, I learned recently that this might be a mistake, as engaging in art has been proven to help cope with emotional difficulties. Art therapy, as described in a review article, involves clients creating collages, shaping pottery or drawing something to illustrate the difficulties that brought them to therapy. This has been studied numerous times — one study even found that art therapy led to statistically significant reductions in somatic symptoms in cancer patients.
While I didn’t plan on engaging in art therapy, I did see how there could be potential mental health benefits in taking part in a visual art medium. I decided to channel my inner artist, and went to a pottery painting studio with a few friends. Before beginning, I talked with the staff about how I hoped to relieve stress by painting, and whether there was anything they could advise me on. I was told that everyone, from infants to elderly adults, had come to this studio and that there was no “real way” to paint the pottery. “Just paint it however you want. That’s the fun of it.”
Still a little skeptical, I went to the rack to pick a piece of pottery to paint. Although the choices were initially overwhelming, from jewelry boxes to cute keychains, I finally decided on a coffee mug — simple, and yet something structured enough that I wouldn’t be at a loss while painting it. However, once I had picked out my colors, I found that I was at an absolute loss of what I should paint. Every time I put the brush to my mug, I immediately drew back: what if I messed it up? What if I changed my mind halfway through? “Just paint!” exclaimed my friends and the staff, who had gotten invested in my article. “It’s not that easy!” I argued back — and that was when I realized what my problem was.
As a population, medical students often try to fulfill expectations of precision and competence and as such, often become preoccupied with perfection to the point of falling into obsessive-compulsive patterns as described by Spiegel. A study of 477 health professional students — medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy — found that a higher than expected percentage of students (27.5%) were experiencing psychiatric levels of distress. This was strongly associated with perfectionism and imposter feelings. My inability to paint on my mug, to “mess it up,” so to speak, is just another manifestation of my constant drive for perfection. I was so scared to do something wrong, even if it was just painting a cheap $10 mug, because that is what I had been conditioned to do both during and before medical school.
“But this is exactly why you should paint,” I was told by the staff member once I had verbalized my fears out loud. “A lot of people feel this way before they start, and you know what? A lot of them do mess up, and it looks ugly after coming out from the kiln. But I promise you, you’ll feel a lot better just doing the painting.”
To my surprise, I found that this was indeed the case: as I started painting and got lost in adding more color and flair onto my cup, I lost my worries about messing up my mug and began to relax in the rhythmic motion of brush-brush-brush-water-wipe-brush-brush-brush. Why this steady motion calmed me is not something of which I am entirely certain. However, articles studying the effects of coloring books show that they decrease negative mood states and anxiety in undergraduates; given that coloring books are conceptually similar to painting a pot, they may share underlying reasons as to why they are calming.
You may ask, why do coloring books or pottery painting have a calming effect? The answer is that we don’t know: according to Stuckey, who analyzed several studies on the effects of art therapy, we know there is a definite correlation with improved mood, reduced stress, anxiety and depression, and improvement of clinical outcomes and somatic symptoms. However, each study differs in their reasoning on why these improvements are seen. Personally, I believe that engaging in art therapy enables one to come into “flow” as described by positive psychology. As stated by Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” means to be “in the zone” — that is, one is so focused on the activity at hand that every other worry becomes irrelevant in the moment. It is the concept that a good life means to be fully absorbed in what one is doing. By becoming so engaged in the art, one is able to forget about problems in his or her life and live in the moment of creating a work of art.
After I got home and did some more research, I found that the concept of using art in medical schools for stress relief is not new; for example, Indiana University School of Medicine engages in this practice and holds an annual event for students to paint together as part of “Wellness Month.” While other schools are incorporating art into their curriculum, they do so as a way to practice observational skills, such as in Yale University School of Medicine and my own medical school, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Hopefully these schools, and others, will make the leap to using art as a stress-relieving method.
One of the great things about pottery painting, besides its obvious mental health benefits, is that it’s easily accessible, with centers found in nearly all major cities. To find one in a city close to you, simply google the name of your city and “paint pottery,” and you are bound to find a pottery painting place close to you. The price is extremely reasonable, usually priced at $6 per painter along with the cost of what you are painting — you can paint for as little as $12 overall!
For those of you getting close to exams, good luck, and take a break to paint pottery!
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30% of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80% stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.