Last updated: Jun 17, 2016

If you've ever spent some time doodling with crayons or sculpting a lump of Play-Doh and emerged feeling refreshed and relaxed, science may have an explanation. Researchers found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which normally spikes during the fight-or-flight response) went down in a group of 39 volunteers who drew with markers, made collages, or played with clay for 45 minutes.

Although this study, published in Art Therapy, was done in healthy adults, it confirms what Lindsay Aaron sees all the time in cancer patients"This is a very science-focused study but it's something you see on the outside of the individual, in body language, the emotional state, behavior," says Aaron, a healing arts therapist at Montefiore Health System in New York City. "We're being able to understand what goes on in the neurology."  

Much of the research thus far has been done in people suffering from different health conditions, and usually with much more defined tasks, such as painting a single tile. This study is the first to look at more freewheeling creative expression in healthy people.

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Researchers took saliva samples from 33 women and six men aged 18 to 59 before and after 45-minute sessions with an art therapist, who was present to provide any assistance needed.​ Levels of cortisol in the saliva tend to mirror those in the blood, so are a good measure of how stressed you are.  

The participants were given no specific instructions other than to make anything they wanted with paper, markers, modeling clay, and collage materials. Some made collages out of magazine pages, some made small clay sculptures, and some combined clay, scribbles, and words cut out of newspapers. About half of the participants had little experience making art.

Cortisol levels went down in 75% of participants over the course of a session. Surprisingly, the remaining 25% had higher levels of cortisol than when they started, something the researchers are still trying to understand. It could be that the art led to new learning or self awareness, which raised stress levels. When asked to write about the experience, participants who said they had learned about themselves during the exercise were slightly more likely to have elevated cortisol levels. 

The study included no control group, which means the researchers don't know if the changes in cortisol levels were due to making art or to some other factor, like hanging out with other people, says study lead author Girija Kaimal, assistant professor of creative arts therapies at Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions in Philadelphia. 

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It's possible that cortisol levels would decrease after an hour of watching TV as well, points out James W. Pennebaker, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker has done numerous studies linking expressive writing with better heath and lower stress levels.

That said, "The findings are certainly consistent with the idea that self-expression can reduce stress and improve health," Pennebaker added.

Art serves two purposes at least, according to Kaimal"It helps us express things that we don't often have words for but are deeply felt and experienced," she says. "Second, it helps us communicate to others this inner state, and when you communicate, you can build relationships. You are really communicating 'This is who I am and where I am.'"