Art therapy benefits stressed caregivers of cancer patients

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Coloring and open-studio art therapy benefits stressed caregivers of cancer patients, according to a new study by researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and published in the European Journal of Oncology Nursing.

A cancer diagnosis is incredibly stressful for the person receiving the diagnosis. But those caring for the patient, both informally and formally, also experience stress, which can affect their own health and the patient's outcome. 

The mixed-methods study compared two arts-based approaches for caregivers, single sessions of coloring and open-studio art therapy. A total of 34 caregivers including 25 healthcare professionals and nine family caregivers were randomly assigned to 45 minutes of an independent, open-studio art therapy or an active-control coloring session, with all sessions run by trained art therapists.

A variety of art materials were available to participants in the open-studio session. The art therapist facilitated the session, offering guidance and interacting with the participant. With five minutes left in the session, the art therapist would process the artwork created by the participant, giving them an opportunity to discuss their work and reflect on the process. In the coloring session, participants chose a coloring sheet and were provided with markers and coloring pencils. The art therapist did not interact with the participant while they colored.

Before and after each session, participants were given surveys to self-report their positive and negative feelings, such as stress and anxiety. After both the art therapy and coloring sessions, participants expressed increases in positive affect, pleasure and enjoyment and decreases in negative affect, anxiety, perceived stress, and burnout. Many expressed a desire to continue to make art in the future, as taking time out of their busy schedules to engage in art helped them to focus on something other than their caregiving.

The findings suggest that even brief artmaking interventions can be beneficial for stressed caregivers of cancer patients. William Levin, MD, the study’s senior author, also points out that creative activities like artmaking are mindful practices, allowing patients and caregivers to stay in the moment, which can free them from the stress that cancer brings.

"These results show the importance of treating the mind as well as the body of cancer patients,” he said. “and it is further evidence that we're on the right track as we continue our push toward a more holistic approach to cancer therapies.”