Crafting and Mental Health

I saw an Instagram post the other day that struck a chord with me. It was about anxiety, uncertainty of the unknown (during the tense US election days), and about mental health. It was also about knitting. Apparently I am months behind on the trend because lockdown has created a surge in knitting artists and crocheting enthusiasts to help cope with both boredom at home and relieve stress.

It reminded me of my origami-folding months before my wedding. It was a period of sadness and grief from a death, combined with potential stress from planning a wedding located over 200 miles away. On reflection I believe I was actually pretty calm in those months – perhaps from my project of folding 1,000 origami cranes and origami cherry blossoms.

Then it reminded me of when I used to bake during stressful periods at school. During the process, kneading dough was quite stress relieving and then at the end there were some tasty biscuits to devour too. I do recall a contestant on The Great British Bake Off  saying baking was a stress-free hobby, prior to coming on the show of course.

Currently I’m painting Van Gogh’s The Starry Night on Paint by Numbers with the hubby whilst listening to The Sandman on Audible. And I must admit, this really is the most relaxed I am all week. So then it got me thinking – how?

Turns out activities such as knitting, crocheting, painting, drawing, folding origami, pottery, baking, cooking, gardening, woodworking can all relieve stress [1, 2]. The list is super long, so there is something for everyone.

In the demands of an online world where things never switch off and things are virtually on a screen, having something physical helps bring you back to the present. I have a fidget cube, and now I’m thinking of taking up knitting or crocheting. Here’s why:

Creating something induces pleasure

There’s a sense of accomplishment, that you’ve created something [3, 4]. The end product, be it a beautiful painting or a cosy scarf, can be seen as a reward. Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward. And when you start to associate an activity with pleasure, then during the activity, the anticipation of the end product can raise dopamine levels [5, 6].

Repetitive actions improve mood and relaxation

Having the multi sensory engagement and the meditative quality of repetitive actions improve wellbeing. Serotonin is released with repetitive movements [7, 8, 9], which improves mood and a sense of calmness.

The repetitive brush strokes or needlework can lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone) [5, 10]. These repetitive actions prevent the fight or flight response, so you feel calmer and more relaxed.

Staying present provides distraction

Repetitive actions can put you in a flow state [5], something I’ve briefly written about before.  When fully engaged, one is in a state of flow, or “in the zone” where challenge or demands are at (or just above) your current level of skill.

Focussing attention on what you’re currently doing, or staying present, improves mindfulness. People say our minds can only concentrate on one thing at one time, so if the mind is occupied enough by a crafty activity, the mind won’t overthink or interpret pain-inducing signals [2, 4, 5, 8, 9]. It would essentially distract the brain.

Handwork improves cognitive skills

Depending on the activity, there can also be an improvement in cognitive skills and can be a benefit for people living with dementia. These craft activities can stimulate the brain and improve brain plasticity, improving motor function and triggering hand memories [1, 5, 11].

Conclusion

So I think I’ll be taking up knitting or crocheting. I already play the ukulele, but I think having something tangible or an end product would be better suited for me right now than doing something intangible like meditating or playing or listening to music.

I have knitted before but have never tried crocheting, so I’m still undecided on which to try out now. But I’m excited about the potential of a cosy blanket, or perhaps just a little square or rectangle can suffice for the time being.

Sources

1 https://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/stories/4-reasons-craft-good-your-mental-health

2 https://theconversation.com/amp/how-craft-is-good-for-our-health-98755

3 https://crochetsociety.co.uk/all-posts/crochet-yourself-calm-during-the-lockdown/

4 https://blog.createandcraft.tv/benefits-of-knitting/

5 https://medium.com/@safetravels196/mental-health-benefits-of-knitting-and-craft-4ab5fb808861

6 https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/article/2157207/what-knitting-painting-and-pottery-do-your-brain-and-why

7 https://anxietyresourcecenter.org/2017/10/crochet-helps-brain/

8 https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/open-gently/201311/should-you-knit

9 https://knitom.com/therapeutic-knitting/

10 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832

11 https://academic.oup.com/gerontologist/article/60/1/112/5203293

6 thoughts on “Crafting and Mental Health

  1. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to bake macarons. It’s been stressful, because it was new, but it was nice to have the finished product – even if they weren’t perfect. I think if you do one of those activities regularly then it becomes a stress-free activity. Learning to do something, at least for me, is rarely stress free.
    Good luck with the knitting if you take it up. I do basic knitting, but I haven’t done so in a long time. As for baking, I think I may stick to chocolate chip cookies next time, much easier.

    1. That’s true, I think there will be a bit of a learning curve. But once that hurdle has been jumped then hopefully it would be smooth sailing and potentially relaxing. I wouldn’t mind baking actually, if only there was some self raising flour around!

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