The importance of self-care has gotten a lot of love during the pandemic: eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, be sure to exercise (just not at a gym). But Dr. Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International Arts and Mind Lab at the Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says there’s an element we’re missing. “I think of art as being as important as exercise, sleep or nutrition,” she says. “It’s a regulator, a way to regulate your body’s systems in a stressful time.”
To that end, the Arts and Mind Lab created the Covid-19 NeuroArts Field Guide, a survival manual of sorts offering weekly creative activities to combat the trauma and stress of a slow-motion catastrophe. The guide provides a blueprint for dance and movement therapy to fight burnout, songwriting to deal with grief, interior design projects to create soothing workspaces for the Zoom-frazzled employee. It also explains the science behind each of these therapies, which Magsamen says are particularly critical during this event, because unlike natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, it has no defined end point.
“In a disaster, there are stages we go through,” she says. “There’s disbelief; there’s heroism, like ‘I can get through this’; then there’s a crash where you’re in despair. Eventually, you find a level set.” With the ongoing pandemic, however, “There is no end,” says Magsamen. “We’re in heightened stress all the time — there’s a hyper attentiveness.”
This prolonged state of stress causes the brain to release cortisol, a hormone that can keep you alert in an emergency, but which, over time, “affects your central nervous system, your circulatory system, your motor system,” she says. These impacts could eventually make you physically sick, which is why it’s important to control your cortisol flow. “We know these art experiences, whether you are passively watching or listening or you’re actively engaged, reduce cortisol.”
We asked you, the readers of Reasons to be Cheerful, to show us the art you’ve been creating. We received hundreds of responses — so many that we can’t feature all of them, but click through the slideshow above to see just a few.
How does it work? Art, says Magsamen, “creates different neural pathways that help extinguish fear.” In doing this, it reduces activity in the brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for all that cortisol. “Dance, writing, music — particularly lower-tonality music — really help settle down the amygdala. Those are important neurobiological shifts.”
Part of how it does this is through a simple yet oft-maligned tactic: distraction. All apologies to Shakespeare, Ellington and Yoko Ono, but according to Magsamen, “The arts are a distraction. When you read a book, you go someplace else. When you listen to music or watch a film, that’s an escape…There used to be a thought that you could do two things at once, but you can’t. You can’t have your full attention everywhere at once.”
This means that if you’re painting, absorbed in a novel or belting out an opera, you’re not fully thinking about your current situation — which, for many of us, is actually healthy because it gives our brains a break from the trauma we’re enduring and allows our systems to recoup. “It’s a mechanism that we’re wired for,” says Magsamen. “It allows us to have that space.”