The hormone cortisol helps regulate blood pressure, stored reserves of energy, and the immune system. It’s often referred to as the “stress hormone” because its production increases in response to biological stressors. Normally it follows a pattern whereby it is highest in the morning and declines in the evening and into the first stages of sleep. Stressful living conditions can disturb this healthy pattern resulting in inappropriately high cortisol concentrations for the time of day. Abnormal cortisol circadian profiles have been linked to ageing, clinical depression, and a range of stress-related physical disease.
A study by University of Westminster (1) has found that a brief lunchtime visit to an art gallery reduced the cortisol levels of city workers as well as their self-reported stress levels.
Participants were invited and given free entrance to the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London. Upon arrival they were asked to complete a short questionnaire (the Cox Mackay Stress Arousal Checklist) which assessed their state of stress and arousal. At the same time they were asked to supply a saliva sample. This process was repeated 35–40 minutes later, after they had completed a visit to the gallery exhibition area.
Upon arrival, average cortisol levels were higher than expected for the time of day and age of participants. After the gallery visit, researchers found that the drop in cortisol concentrations was rapid and substantial. With a normal pattern of cortisol decline during the day, it would have taken about 5 hours for levels to normalize, yet with the gallery visit, this happened in just 35 minutes, meaning the visit caused a rapid recovery from the consequences of high stress. Interestingly, the rapid decline affected only those with higher than normal cortisol levels. You can read full paper here.
(*) Researchers: Angela Clow PhD with Cathrine Fredhoi MSc Department of Psychology, University of Westminster.