The Connection Between Art & Health

Uplifting Art in a Medical Office Waiting Room

Article by Leily Zhu

Despite their cleanliness, hospitals have an unpleasant reputation including stark white walls, overwhelming scents of disinfectants, and feelings of emptiness. They will never be a desirable location to spend time, and unfortunately, that is very unlikely to change. However, this doesn’t mean actions haven’t been taken to brighten the atmosphere and make your time spent in many facilities more enjoyable. Art in healthcare facilities has become increasingly essential as more studies prove the positive impact that art can have on patients and their families.

Art for healthcare displayed on office walls using the ArtPlacer tool
Art for healthcare displayed using the ArtPlacer tool. Paintings by artist Paul Bond and photography by Sean Hunter Brown.

Research has shown that art in healthcare is beneficial in a multitude of ways, including improved health and creating a sense of familiarity.

Art and Healing: How Art Improves Health

Engaging with art benefits both physical and mental health. Studies have shown that art can reduce depression, improve overall physical well-being, and slow cognitive decline.

In medical offices and hospitals, art creates an environment where patients feel safe, reducing stress and anxiety, and increasing overall satisfaction. Art in medical offices, and other work areas, is just as important for the workers as is for the patients. About 30-55% of physicians experience physical burnout, often due to working too many hours, and art can help combat that by creating a relaxing atmosphere that is enjoyable to work in. A survey conducted by the International Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA) found that 82% of employees said art was important in the work environment, which demonstrates the necessity of art as a morale booster and stress reliever.

Dealing with Depression

A qualitative study had female cancer patients engage with different types of visual art and observed the effects. These women were dealing with many cancer-related difficulties such as fear, pain, insomnia, restricted activity, loss of self-confidence, and shifting social relationships. The study found that interacting with visual art helped these women in four main ways: 

  1. Focus on the positive aspects of life, thus helping them forget about their preoccupation with cancer 
  2. Enhance their self-worth and identity
  3. Keep an identity undefined by cancer
  4. Provide an outlet to express their emotions symbolically, especially during chemotherapy

Compared to the patients who did not participate in such art therapy studies, those who did had better mental health, lower levels of anxiety, and reduced symptoms of depression. By focusing on positive life experiences rather than their disease, participants showed results associated with increased self-worth. Art also allows people to express emotions that are too difficult to put into words. It can help give their life-story meaning.

Improve Physical Health

In a study conducted at the Chelsea and Westminster Health Hospital, certain units underwent art intervention while others did not. Those that received the intervention had a significantly larger probability to show improved clinical outcomes. These included stronger vital signs, less of the stress hormone cortisol, and reduced amounts of medication necessary to sleep.

Other research has shown that art in healthcare can complement traditional approaches to medicine, intended to improve both physical and mental health. Evidence-based design and art have become crucial to healthcare facilities for this very reason. Evidence-based design is the process of constructing a physical environment based on scientific research to achieve the best possible outcomes. Think feng shui but more scientific. Art in healthcare facilities combines thoughtful building design with artwork that is soothing and serene, often depicting nature scenes. This has resulted in reduced recovery time, lower pain levels, and less consumption of sedatives and painkillers.

Anza Borrego Desert Bloom fine art photography piece depicting serene nature scene
Anza Borrego Desert Bloom by artist Taras Semchyshyn. This fine art photography piece representing scenic nature is ideal for healthcare facilities.

Slow Cognitive Decline

Interacting with art has proven to improve overall cognitive function. A 2017 Mayo Clinic Study of Aging reported that people over the age of 70 who did crafts and interacted with art were at a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment than those who read books. 

As discussed above, art can help people with depression, anxiety, and dealing with chronic illnesses. On top of that, art can help improve memory, reasoning, and mental resilience.  Imagine what adding art to one’s life can do for someone who is already healthy!

Art as a Guide

For long-term patients and their families, medical facilities can become their temporary or permanent place of residence. Empty white walls and fluorescent lights are the last things anyone wants to be surrounded by day in and day out. That is where art comes in. By placing art in healthcare facilities, it can make the atmosphere more inviting and make people feel more at ease. It makes it feel more like home. 

Upali Nanda, a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, says that art can be used to make a space memorable, provide a positive distraction, inspire awe, and for wayfinding. By seeing a familiar piece of artwork, individuals can identify where they are in a building, where their desired destination is, and how to get there. Research has shown that familiar and calming images of nature tend to be the most soothing. Fine art photography of nature scenes is often ideal for healthcare facilities. 

Big Sur Hidden Lagoon - Fine Art Photography of California's peaceful coastline
Big Sur Hidden Lagoon by artist John Cocozza. This fine art photography piece of a serene ocean view creates a soothing feeling of calmness.

Calming Colors & How They Affect Your Health

Color psychology plays a big role in the way you feel and how your surroundings affect your mood and mentality. A study on the effects of color done by Minnesota State University (MSU) found that red environments increase stress levels, while green and white environments do the opposite. Overall, most calming hues are related to the color blue. Soft shades of similar color families will have a similar effect.

Blue & Blue-Green

In environments of high-stress activity, such as hospitals and healthcare facilities, finding ways to reduce stress is very important. The peaceful effect of blue colors can calm your mind, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even slow your heart rate. These are the types of physical responses patients and families in hospitals need during operations and stressful health situations. 

Lavender

The blue-base of lavender helps to create the same effects of blues and blue-greens. Muted lavender shades are more effective at reducing stress as compared to a vibrant or overly dark tone. Other gentle shades of purple, such as soft violet or lilac, have a similar effect.

Green

As found in the MSU study, green environments can reduce anxiety levels. Both dark and light greens are associated with nature and thus create some of the most calming effects of all colors. Participants in the study had lower stress after spending time in a green room as opposed to a red room. 

Soft Pink

Though pink is closely related to the color red, non-vivid, dusty shades of pink have a peaceful effect on the mind. Pastel pinks and muted pink colors that have heavy doses of white or beige are good colors for healthcare that do not overstimulate the brain.

Cherry Blossom Bloom at Balboa Park by Scott Murphy images of pink cherry blossom trees
Cherry Blossom Bloom at Balboa Park by Scott Murphy. The combination of the flower’s pink petals and the photograph’s nature elements creates a peaceful effect.

White

Though hospitals are notorious for their white walls that somehow make silence loud, white is a very calming color because of its clean, uncluttered look. It’s good to select artwork that includes white along with other colors, and this is true for the furnishings too. Subtle differences in the shade of white can cause a shift in people’s reaction to the color. Clean, bright whites are preferable to dull whites with dark undertones. 

Whether it is the color of the walls or the scenery depicted in a piece of artwork, art has healing qualities that can help improve your mental and physical health.

Health and wellness should always be one of your top priorities because once those are lost, all of the other things in life you care about suddenly diminish, including your ability to care for others. Give yourself the okay to carve out time and resources for self-care and self-love as part of that priority. If you are feeling stuck, it might be time to explore artworks that spruce up your environment and provide a sense of healing.

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