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Combination Stress Reduction Therapy Benefits Outcomes in Breast Cancer Patients

stress reduction, art therapy, cancer, breast cancer

Chronic stress is known to have damaging effects to the body. When you are already ill, such as with cancer, acute stress can take its toll as well, leading to poorer health outcomes. Researchers are continually looking for strategies that help cancer patients better cope with stress and anxiety during treatment and have found that a combination of mindfulness and art therapy may be one mechanism to improve quality of life.

Daniel Monti MD, the director of the Jefferson-Myma Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, and colleagues studied the therapies in eighteen breast cancer patients between the ages of 52 and 77 years who were not in active treatment. A portion of the patients were assigned to a group using a therapy that combines Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with art – a program they call “Mindfulness-based Art Therapy” or MBAT. The curriculum consisted of awareness of breathing, awareness of emotion, mindful yoga, and walking, paired with expressive art tasks to provide opportunities for self-expression of emotion and to facilitate coping strategies.

The remaining patients participated in an education program control group.

Those in the MBAT group showed changes in brain activity (measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging) associated with lower stress and anxiety after the eight-week program. The group displayed increases in cerebral blood flow in emotional centers of the brain including the left insula which helps us to perceive our emotions, the amygdala which helps us experience stress, the hippocampus that regulates stress responses, and the caudate nucleus that is part of the brain’s reward system.

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The intervention group also took a 90-item symptom checklist which showed improvements in post-program anxiety scores.

MBSR, on its own, is a clinically proven eight-week program for alleviating stress, anxiety, panic, depression, chronic pain, and a number of other medical conditions. It was created in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn and the program is offered in over 250 hospitals around the country. For those unable to find a program in their area, there is also a Workbook, written by Bob Stahl PhD and Elisha Goldstein PhD which can help you promote mindful habits that reduce stress.

Art therapy uses the creative process of art to help improve and enhance physical, mental and emotional well-being. Research suggests that artistic self-expression helps people resolve conflicts and problems, helps develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, and reduce stress.

Art therapists are trained in both art and in therapy. The American Art Therapy Association offers a list of facilities around the country that utilize art therapists for care of patients of all ages. But again, if you do not have access to a therapist, there are some techniques that you can use in your home, such as keeping an art journal. Sketching pictures that describe your feelings, creating abstract pictures that express emotion, or even using paints, chalk, or even crayons to draw beautiful positive aspects of your life can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Reminder, you need not be talented in art in order to express yourself through drawings and paintings. Art therapy is more of a process of identifying and coping with emotions through the creative process rather than creating perfect artwork. If you aren’t feeling particularly “artistic,” find a hobby that relaxes you, such as pottery, knitting, crocheting - even photography - etc. that allows you to time to yourself and offers the reward of accomplishment at the end.

Journal Reference:
Daniel A. Monti, Kathryn M. Kash, Elisabeth J. S. Kunkel, George Brainard, Nancy Wintering, Aleezé S. Moss, Hengyi Rao, Senhua Zhu, Andrew B. Newberg. Changes in Cerebral Blood Flow and Anxiety Associated with an 8-week Mindfulness Programme in Women with Breast Cancer. Stress and Health, 2012; 28 (5): 397 DOI:10.1002/smi.2470