The Fine Art of Healing the Sick
Embracing the benefits of writing, music, and art
Both writing and visual art can play a role in reducing pain and decreasing physical symptoms of illness. Perhaps that's because they allow patients a way to release stress and process trauma. Indeed, two decades of research link writing about trauma to improved physical health.
In 1986, James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas-Austin, found that students who wrote about a traumatic experience were much less likely to visit the student health center in the subsequent four months. Since then, a slew of studies have shown that writing about trauma improves the health of people with chronic disease. The evidence is so compelling that Pennebaker expects to test his method this summer with soldiers returning from Iraq.
No wonder hospitals around the country have launched writing groups to help patients heal physically and mentally. Sutter Health system in Sacramento, Calif., for example, offers six writing groups a week through its Literature, Arts, and Medicine Program, launched in 2002 for patients, caregivers, and community members. The 12 to 15 participants in each group write fiction, essays, or poetry, then read their work aloud. The other participants are invited to comment, but they're asked to treat all revelations as fiction and to refer to the writer as the narrator--techniques designed to make the writers feel safe and uninhibited. "I have one patient who has really severe asthma and chronic lung disease," says Maxine Barish-Wreden, an internist in Sacramento who has referred many patients to the group. "It certainly hasn't cured her, but it has improved her symptoms and well-being."
In the body. Recently, scientists have been taking a closer look at what exactly is going on in the body when patients write a letter, paint a self-portrait, or listen to a favorite song. A series of studies by psychologist Denise Sloan at Temple University in Philadelphia show that after writing exercises, subjects demonstrate lower levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that may affect immune levels. And in 2004, a study showed that AIDS patients who completed writing exercises had higher levels of T-cells, which play a significant role in cellular immunity. It all ties together in the way art affects the brain.
"We believe music can cause neurochemical changes in specific parts of the brain," says Mark Jude Tramo, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Institute for Music and Brain Science in Boston. Those particular areas are related to the brain and body's "feel good" systems--the endogenous opioid, dopamine, and cannabinoid systems that are also affected by drugs like heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.
"Music is a powerful auditory stimulus," Tramo says. So powerful, in fact, that it may cause cells to release substances such as endorphins, which suppress pain, and immunoglobulins, which help fight disease.
Likewise, in a study published in May's Journal of Psycho-Oncology, Daniel Monti, medical director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, looked at 111 women with different types of cancer who took part in a support group called Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy. The group combined meditation training with art tasks, from sketching self-portraits to sculpting with clay. Women in the group experienced significant drops in their stress levels and improvement in their health-related quality of life, including less pain, better sleep, and fewer general physical complaints. The results were so convincing that the National Institutes of Health has provided Monti an additional grant for a five-year study of more than 300 cancer patients, which will look closely at specific markers in the immune system.