The Arts as a Tool for Stress Management

the arts - an illustration with mottled blue background and aerial view of many people of different cultures, holding hands in a spiral or circle

What is stress? A common definition is “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.” Another popular definition is “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” For more information, visit The American Institute of Stress.

Stress is a ubiquitous part of life, impacting each of us differently. It’s the body’s normal response to change or a threat. Too much stress, especially if chronic, can impact mental health and overall well-being.

Chronic and acute stress are a significant health problem, contributing to exhaustion, burnout, anxiety, and a weak immune system. It can wreak havoc on our mental, emotional, cognitive, and physical health.

How do you know when you are under too much stress? Common symptoms include:

  • Sleep patterns have changed, such as insomnia; you’re feeling tired all the time
  • Feeling sad and depressed for prolonged periods, perhaps isolating from others
  • Becoming easily agitated, irritable, or anxious, or all three
  • Changes in appetite, whether eating more or less
  • Experiencing frequent tension headaches
  • Unable to focus, disorganized, constantly worrying, and overwhelmed
  • Digestive issue such as heartburn, constipation, or diarrhea
  • High blood pressure and a racing heartbeat
  • Suppressed immune system resulting in more frequent colds and infections, along with delayed recovery
  • Feeling achy and in chronic pain, especially in your joints and back

Fortunately, research supports that the arts can provide both an easily accessible and highly effective means of reducing, addressing, and managing stress, as well as improving and supporting mental health.

As Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross reflect in their book Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us, “Relieving our stress is as important as eating food, drinking water, and sleeping. And, in these moments, the arts and aesthetics make a big difference if you know how to use them. Think of the arts as an activity that changes your biology, emotional state, and enhances your mental well-being.” (p. 28)

Engaging in the arts to reduce stress is also enjoyable. Creative activities can promote relaxation, aid in mindfulness or meditation, take your mind off life’s stressors, offer a satisfying role in self-care, and provide a sense of pride and accomplishment.

The arts are broadly defined and can be experienced in many forms. Dance. Collage. Painting. Sculpting. Drumming. Pottery. Singing. Photography. Playing an instrument. Coloring. Acting. Spoken word. Writing. Gardening. Knitting. Poetry. Sewing. Storytelling. Weaving. Drawing. Even cooking.

Following are some art forms for you to explore. Added benefit—group activities offer opportunities for social connection, another contributor to enhanced mental health and reduced stress!

Drawing and Coloring

  • Buy a coloring book for adults or print coloring pages online.
  • Use colored pencils, markers, or crayons to get creative.
  • Grab a sketchbook and try your hand at drawing or doodling.


  • Have fun exploring with watercolors, acrylics, or oils.
  • Focus on the process and enjoyment, this isn’t about creating a masterpiece.
  • Get outside with a travel watercolor paint kit, capture the beauty of nature, and get some Vitamin D and fresh air in the process.
Look for supplies at Seattle ReCreative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting creativity, community and environmental stewardship through creative reuse and art education.


  • Start writing in a journal to express your thoughts and emotions.
  • Explore creative writing or poetry as a form of self-expression and exploration.
  • Check the course offerings at Hugo House, your local library, or senior center.
Check out the Broadway Hill Club classes for older adults offered at Seattle Central College’s main campus on Capitol Hill.


  • You can dance anytime, anywhere, just move your body to the rhythm of music.
  • Take a dance class (check your local community or senior center); follow video instructions online. Let’s Dance: For Health and Fun
  • Dance can even be done from a chair.


  • Create playlists on a music app; listen to calming music.
  • Take advantage of community music concerts – starting again in June, the Ballard Locks features free concerts every Saturday and Sunday!
  • You can sing anywhere! The shower, your car, in a community choir. Use the Greater Seattle Choral Consortium Choir Finder to locate a choir near you!
  • Want to play ukulele or piano? Now’s the perfect excuse! Learning a new skill creates new neural pathways in the brain, an added benefit!
Click here for virtual, free Creative Arts and Art Making courses offered by Mather.


  • Take a walk and capture an image of what grabs your interest. Most of us have a phone with a camera. Snap away! Flowers blossoming, migrating birds, your favorite meal, a grandchild’s smile.
  • Engage in the act of pausing and observing, focus on the joy and beauty around you.


  • Knitting, crocheting, sewing, weaving, and macrame as have practical and meditative aspects to them. When you’re finished, you have something to show off and share.
  • Make handmade cards with markers, collage, or potato or linocut prints.
Learn about the amazing and free art classes happening at the Lake City Senior Center.

Theater and Improv

Focus on the joy of the process rather than the result. Best part—there are no rules! Find what works best for you. Reserve time for regular artistic activities to help manage and reduce stress.

It’s important to recognize stress, take steps to build resilience, and know where to find help. Mental Health America provides some tips on how to reduce your stress by utilizing a Stress Screener. Visit the CDC website for additional stress management strategies.

Keri PollackContributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management and creative engagement practice based in Seattle. She is a member of the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County and serves on the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) Board.

This article appeared in the April 2024 issue of AgeWise King County