People are discovering therapeutic remedies through the arts.

As a second lockdown in England begins today and as winter creeps upon us, the next few months appear bleak. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, not to mention the uncertainty of Brexit and the impending climate crisis, reports of anxiety and stress are at an all-time-high in the UK.

Contrary to the intended effect of lockdown minimising our interaction with people, we seem to busier than ever in the era of social media and zoom, meaning we are never truly at ease.

In the previous national lockdown of March, art became a means of connecting with the outside world via viral sensations, such as the Getty challenge, which saw people recreating their favourite works of art with hilarious effects. Art not only has the power to entertain, but to shock, delight, upset and even transfix us. But in this second lockdown, can it do even more – does it have the power to heal?

Art Therapy is a well-known and practised method of relieving stress and anxiety, but recent studies suggest the act of simply viewing art has similar relaxing effects. A study by the University of London suggests that viewing a work of art can produce the same effect as falling in love, releasing dopamine, known as the happy hormone, into the brain. Does this mean that art historians are the most relaxed people on the planet? Not quite, but the significance of art to mental health and wellbeing should not be underestimated.

The charity Paintings in Hospitals is testimony to the impact of art on health. As their title suggests their aim is to place art on view in the UK’s hospital. They currently have 2478 paintings of museum-quality on display by artists, such as Bridget Riley, Maggi Hambling and Anish Kapoor.


By cherry irvine: arts Columnist

Studies by the charity suggest that on average patients staying in hospitals with art on display spend a shorter length of time there. Viewing art does not go as far as curing us of all ailments, but its ability to decrease stress levels in turn reduces one of the main consequences of dangerous levels of stress: cardio-vascular disease, which itself is one of the leading causes of death in the country.

At a moment when we need art more than ever to decrease our anxiety over another lockdown, museums and galleries are forced to close. But lockdown has taught us that there is a 21st century way to enjoy art. Many people dismiss viewing art on a computer screen as not the same experience as seeing a piece of art in the flesh. This may be true, but the enjoyment and pleasure from discovering a new work of art can still be attained in the virtual world. Most of England’s national museums and galleries now have virtual tours of this year’s cancelled exhibitions on their websites for us to peruse free-of-charge.

The National Portrait Gallery has gone one step further with an audio guide on its website that uses mindfulness techniques to enable you to slow down and engage with a self-portrait by the 17th Century artist Anthony Van Dyck. This guide is a departure from traditional academic analysis of a painting and instead allows you to home in on your own emotions and reactions to experiencing the work. A meditation on the act of viewing itself.

At a point of increased stress and anxiety, it is important to focus on something else – art gives us the space and opportunity to relax and focus on something outside of ourselves and our situation. We can travel back to the 17th century and lose ourselves in Van Dyck’s confident gaze. So next time you plan on opening Netflix to relax, try instead diving into a museum’s collection or even Google Arts and Culture where a whole world’s worth of museums and galleries are ready to explore at the click of a button.