Some people do art to make a statement or make some money; others do it for fun. But new research suggests that producing art can also bring some highly therapeutic benefits to those in the grips of a terrible disease.

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that just one session of art therapy can substantially reduce symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS. Their study, published in the journal AIDS Care earlier this year, involved 79 inpatients and outpatients receiving treatment from a local hospital's HIV clinic. All participants took a physical assessment test, measuring symptoms such as pain, tiredness, and nausea. They also took an assessment of their psychological symptoms, such as calmness, nervousness, and tenseness.

After these two tests, half of the participants spent an hour receiving art therapy from a licensed art therapist, and the other half watched a video that discussed art therapy. Then they retook the assessment tests.

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The results revealed a significant improvement in physical symptoms among those who engaged in art therapy, but not among the other group.

In their hour of therapy, a licensed art therapist presented the patient with art materials and told the person to create anything they wanted with the materials. As the person began drawing or crafting, the therapist inquired about the meaning of whatever the patient was creating. The therapist then attempted to guide the patient to a deeper understanding of what they were trying to express through the art.

The researchers believe this kind of therapy can help HIV patients because it enables them to express their pain and anxiety about their illness. And though the study found no significant improvement in the psychological symptoms of the patients, the researchers are optimistic that relief would come in that area with longer and more frequent art therapy sessions, especially considering that this study only involved a single one-hour session.

For more on the benefits of art, check out Greater Good's Winter 2009 issue, especially Meera Sethi's article, "Does Art Heal?" on an innovative art therapy program.

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