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Can museums help combat anxiety?

The soothing qualities of art and cultural are well established. Taking part in activities like painting, sculpting, drawing, photography or simply viewing art have long been understood to relax and reward those who dedicate the time to it. The role of art in relieving anxiety is also well founded and, as a result, there are many examples today of art being used as a tool for remedying stress, depression and a range of other mental health problems around the world.

Yet there has been a distinct shift in recent years away from “health benefits” as a pleasing by-product of cultural endeavours towards a more defined and distinct role for institutions. As the capabilities of museums and galleries have come to the fore and medical professionals have embraced the concept of social prescribing, there is no doubt that venues have been given a responsibility to lend their extensive assets to the healthcare cause.

Anxiety – a rising epidemic

The impact of anxiety disorders shouldn’t be underestimated. Feelings of unease, worry and fear have devastating effects on the lives of many individuals. While much has been made of the pandemic’s exacerbation of anxiety, there is no doubt that many people suffered from this affliction long before Covid-19 was ever a thing; and will continue to be a serious problem long after we have all learnt to live alongside this Coronavirus.

In addition to cultivating feelings of dread, panic, unease, detachment and irritability, anxiety has a physically crippling impact on the body. It can cause restlessness, dizziness, nausea, palpitations, breathing difficulties, sleep issues, headaches, and panic attacks to name but a few of its physical symptoms.

The Mental Health Foundation found that approximately 1 in 20 people have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and phobias. And cases of these conditions are increasing around the globe.

Art and culture as therapy and prevention

While art therapy is a discipline all on its own, visiting museums and galleries on a regular, recreational basis enables people to indulge their creative minds; a move that can reduce stress and help them get in touch with their feelings.

Museum environments provide the perfect settings for using art and culture as therapy. These institutions offer the emotional and physical support those suffering with anxiety need to manage their feelings in a constructive manner. But in addition to engaging with those suffering from clinically diagnosed problems, it is also worth noting that when it comes to mental health, prevention is always better than a cure. So, indulging in wholesome and intellectually stimulating endeavours like regular tours of the local gallery can keep the worst of stress and anxiety at bay over the long term.

Institutions are doing more to communicate the mental health benefits of accessing art and artefacts as a form of self-care, positive distraction and even meditation.

The sense of relaxation many museum visitors feel when visiting cultural institutions makes them ideal settings for personal calmness and a feeling of becoming more centred.

A great example of a museum looking to develop a welcoming, serene can be found in The Natural History Museum’s recently unveiled plans for improving its green space. Originally opened in 1995, its gardens have long offered a haven at the heart of the city for plants, animals, museum visitors and staff.

Under their recently revealed plans, the Urban Nature Project will support diversity, restore heritage, incorporate sustainability, improve accessibility all year round, and provide visitors with opportunities to explore nature in a peaceful way.

The garden design will introduce designated spaces for reflection and relaxation to offer a place for better mental health support for all.

The connection between art and healing

Art and culture are powerful healers. Whether an institution is promoting music engagement, visual arts therapy, movement-based expression or other creative processes through their exhibits, events or activities, the physical and psychological impact can improve the imbalances that so many people feel in their daily lives.

Encouraging creative engagement in museums can support the mental health of all visitors, including those at risk of anxiety and/or recovering from mental illness or distress. Facilitating a deeper knowledge of the world can also increase understanding and broaden the horizons of people with anxiety.

Find out more about the health and wellbeing issues currently impacting museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit, running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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