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Art therapy could help reduce stress among high schoolers

Researchers emphasize the benefits of mindfulness activities

Photo (c) skynesher - Getty Images
Teens in middle and high school can deal with a great deal of stress on a day-to-day basis, and a new study suggests that art therapy can be helpful as a coping mechanism. 

Researchers from the University of Washington say that making art can help teens as a mindfulness activity. The study found that engaging in art therapy can reduce stress to the point of eliminating stress-related headaches in teenage girls. 

“This study highlights one of my main research missions: We should be making interventions in cooperation with teenagers if we want these strategies to work,” said researcher Elin Björling. “There’s something powerful about saying, ‘I’m inviting you to start thinking about how you could get better. Come have a conversation with me about how we could do this.’ I think that’s why we saw such a strong response even in this tiny study.” 

The power of mindfulness

To see how mindfulness activities could reduce teens’ stress levels at schools, the researchers had eight female Seattle high school students participate in several different activities, all geared towards reducing stress. 

The participants were chosen because they reported frequent headaches, none of which were tied to injury or illness; the majority of the students attributed these conditions to stress. 

The researchers had the students try things like mindful eating, square breathing, and several different art therapy exercises that included creating mandalas after a guided meditation and painting with oil pastels. 

For 50 minutes twice per week, the students began and ended each mindfulness session by drawing body maps, in which they labeled the physical manifestations of their stress, and then moved on to other mindfulness activities. Björling was surprised by what felt natural and calming to the students, as they latched onto square breathing and art projects but weren’t fans of mindful eating. 

“[Mindful eating] was a technique straight out of a lot of mindfulness programs for teens, but it didn’t connect with them,” said Björling. “It just annoyed them. It goes to show I need them to be experts in their own lives.” 

Though stress wasn’t eliminated entirely, taking the time to be mindful, even twice per school week, was beneficial for students’ overall mindsets throughout the school day. It even helped reduce their stress-related headaches. 

Björling and her team hope that more work is done in this area so that teens can find healthy ways to cope and manage their every day stress levels.

“It’s not just about this study,” Björling said. “This problem of teen mental health and headaches is so big that I’m worried about what happens if we don’t take it on. Some teens will want nothing to do with art mindfulness. So we need to come at this in a lot of different ways. We’re going to need an army of people and a cornucopia of options.” 

Working to reduce stress

Researchers have recently explored how effective mindfulness training can be, especially as stress is ramped up when students move from high school to college. In a study that focused on college students, researchers found that time spent doing mindfulness activities, such as meditation and deep breathing, can help college students reduce stress. 

“We found that underneath the stress that students are experiencing is a deep desire to appreciate life and feel meaningful connections with other people,” said researcher Kamila Dvorakova. “It is our responsibility as educators to create academic environments that nurture both students’ minds and hearts.”

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