Crafting a better state of mind

Mindful crafting can help you deal with everyday life, keep your stress at a healthy level, and help you to sleep better

Every year, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem, according to mental health charity Mind. A national survey of mental health issues found that nearly 5% of adults in the UK suffer from anxiety, 2.6% from depression and nearly 10% from mixed anxiety and depression. Creative activities are increasingly being recognised as a way of coping with these problems. Colouring as therapy, creative papercrafts, scrapbooking, and peaceful needlecrafts such as knitting, crochet, embroidery and hand quilting can all be practised in conjunction with mindfulness techniques to produce a more spiritual experience – but even as stand-alone activities their benefits are clear.

In this quick fix, disposable, consumer society, handmade gifts – for yourself or others – show care and attention, and hold a value no mass-produced item can. And then there’s the crafting itself. Lots of the benefits are obvious when you think about them – it gives you something to do with your hands, it is a pleasingly tactile thing to do, and when you finish a project you have achieved something you can be proud of.

It sounds good on paper

One of the more surprising creative pastimes that has been linked to wellbeing and mindfulness is adult colouring books, the sales of which have taken off as more and more of us look for a simple, tried and tested way to switch off from the stresses and strains of everyday life. More than 3 million copies were sold in 2015, making sales worth around £20.3 million, according to trade publication The Bookseller.

The craze may be new, but psychologists and therapists have known about the benefits of colouring for a long time. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who worked with Sigmund Freud and founded analytical psychology, recommended colouring to his patients, believing it would help them access their subconscious and self-knowledge. Today psychologists encourage their patients to colour as a way to relax and meditate. This simple, easy activity – which for many will bring back memories of happier childhood days – can calm us, distract us from niggling problems and even help us sleep. And it’s been found to help with more serious problems too.

A colourful way to focus

Those suffering from anxiety, stress and even post-traumatic stress disorder can find relief in colouring, which calms down the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response. On top of that, colouring can help with concentration, focus and fine motor skills, and is a great way of practising mindfulness. Counsellor Dr Nikki Martinez writes in the Huffington Post: “There are many times when I suggest adult colouring books to my patients, and they look at me as though we should be switching seats. However, time and again, they come back to me and tell me how beneficial they find them.”

Therapists have also found that origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, helps with focus and concentration, and because it requires patience, can help people to work through anger and frustration.

Other paper crafts are just as beneficial. Countless studies have found that altruism and giving help people connect socially and provide a buffer against stress, so card-making and creating paper gifts will help you just as much as they help the person you’re making them for, while combining the catharsis of journaling with beautiful paper crafts will leave you with a beautiful memory as well as a sense of release.

Knitting is the new yoga

Knitting in particular has also been found to have benefits for health and wellbeing, and has even been called the new yoga. Former physiotherapist and knitter Betsan Corkhill has spent more than a decade looking into the way therapeutic knitting can make lives better. In her book Knit for Health & Wellness she notes the way the rhythm of knitting can bring on a meditative state, calming and helping knitters to think more clearly. The position of their hands also helps them to feel their personal space is protected, while research has shown that the way the hands cross the midline of the body may affect the perception of pain.

Betsan writes: “Studies in animals have shown that repetitive movement enhances the release of serotonin. Serotonin raises mood, but it also calms and is an analgesic. People often instinctively engage in repetitive, rhythmic movement when they are stressed or traumatised. They are intuitively self-soothing as they rock, pace or tap. Frequent knitting (more than three times a week) can help people feel calmer and happier, even those suffering from clinical depression.”

Other studies back Betsan’s research. In a survey of more than 3,000 members of an online knitting community, 82% said they felt happy after knitting, nearly half said it helped them think through their problems and nearly two-thirds reported an increase in confidence, according to research by the University of Exeter Medical School and De Agostini Publishing. A further study in an eating disorder unit found that knitting distracted 74% of participants, and 18% said it prevented their eating disorder behaviours altogether.

Uplifting experience

Becca Tansley recently opened her own yarn shop in Shrewsbury, Ewe & Ply, after working as a mental health nurse for some 20 years, and has seen the health benefits of knitting first hand. She has also pioneered the use of therapeutic colouring books among her patients. Becca says: “If you are suffering from anxiety, depression or any other mental distress, it’s very difficult to flick the switch and get respite from those feelings. I used knitting and crochet to give people something to concentrate on that wasn’t overwhelming and occupied both their hands and minds. It uses a certain level of concentration that can shut out the rest of the world and I got a lot of really positive feedback.

“If you are creating something, it connects with a different part of your mind,” Becca continues. “It is an uplifting experience, you get pleasure from the colours you are using, the texture of the yarn, they are all having a very positive impact – and then the fact that you have made something is a great boost for self-esteem. Even a very basic garter stitch square may not seem like much in itself, but if you put enough of them together you’ve got a blanket.”

Supportive community

Leona-Jayne Kelly took up knitting when she struggled with depression at university. “I got to the stage where I wasn’t leaving my bed or going to lectures,” she explains. “I can’t remember what made me decide to teach myself to knit, but I did, and it’s been such a good thing – I would describe
it as a comfort blanket.”

Social anxiety made Leona feel everyone was looking at her and judging her – but when she was knitting she could tell herself they were only looking at her because of that. She started to feel better and go to lectures again – and while there, she would knit and that would help her to concentrate. She went on to study textiles and interiors, and suffered another bout of depression. A supportive tutor encouraged her to go back to her classes and to persevere with her knitting. “I went back to it and I haven’t stopped since,” she says. “I’ve always got a project with me. It gives me something to focus on to stop me overthinking things.”

After getting her BA in textiles, Leona opened her own yarn shop, Fluph, in Dundee. “It’s my home from home, my safe bubble. It’s a way of using my coping mechanism to make a living,” she says. With the shop as a base for classes and workshops, Leona has built up a vibrant, supportive community of knitters and crocheters – another great way of staving off bad feelings. “There’s always a gathering of people drinking tea and coming in and out,” she says. “A lot of us agree that knitting has helped our mental health. It gives us a focus, and we can say, I’m not worthless, I’m knitting this.”

Health benefits

The Craft Yarn Council of America has made the health benefits of knitting one of its key campaign areas, and each spring hands out knitted and crocheted lemon-shaped stress balls to stressed-out New Yorkers in a bid to educate the mainstream about the stress-busting benefits of the crafts. The trade body has carried out its own research into the subject, and found that 85% of 3,100 knitters and crocheters they polled feel less stressed when they do their craft, 68% say it lifts their mood and 93% report a feeling of accomplishment. On top of that, 56% also feel a sense of confidence, 43% say their concentration improves, 27% that their problem solving is better and 23% say their memory increases.

Knit for Health & Wellness author Betsan Corkhill writes: “Knitting can help you deal with everyday life, manage change, normal fluctuations in mood, keep your stress at a healthy level, occupy you during boring journeys or otherwise unproductive time and help you to sleep better. It can literally change your mind and how you feel about yourself, your life and the world. The brilliant thing about knitting is you can start today from your armchair. It’s a simple yet powerful way to wellness and
it is in your hands.”

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get crafting!

  • Words: Christine Boggis
  • Illustrations: Le Chernina / Shutterstock
  • Article originally from issue 1 of Breatheorder digital edition here