It’s currently Mental Health Awareness Week and I couldn’t let it pass without discussing how great crafting is for your wellbeing. It’s meditative, calming, anxiety reducing and allows your brain to focus on something outside of anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems.
“Research suggests that crafting is much more than just an outlet for personal expression or a way to pass the time. Crafting can help reduce anxiety, improve mood, and increase happiness, all of which can help fight depression.” – Laura Johnson, writer.
I first became a “crafter” in March 2013 when I learnt to knit, although I’ve always enjoyed being creative. Learning to knit was initially a way to distract my hands and brain from some new anxieties - a very good friend of mine suggested the craft to me as it helped with her mental health, so she took me yarn shopping, and I gave it a go. I have to admit I was looking at her with a good ol’ side-eye at first – “Me? Knitting? Surely not!” But she wasn’t wrong. Once I had gotten over the initial frustration of learning (after resorting to videos intended for children on YouTube) I was lost in a world of knits and purls (it’s where my business name comes from!) and an obsession was born.
Once I could mindlessly knit away, I was both amazed and relieved at the benefits I felt - the distraction from my anxieties and stressors was such a pleasant surprise. Not to mention the absolute buzz from being productive without it being a chore and the thrill of seeing something I had created from scratch in use or on display – just out there in the world because of my hands. I honestly believe it changed my life – it gave me a new coping mechanism, a welcome distraction from a busy brain, and opened doors to whole new communities of friends and peers, both online and in person.
Since then, a pattern has emerged: life gets hard -> I learn a new craft. In 2014, when I was at the start of long, difficult struggle with fertility, I learnt to crochet. In 2015, when my Stepdad’s health dramatically declined, I learnt cross stitch. When he passed away after a long battle in hospital in 2017, I learnt embroidery. In 2020, when lockdown fatigue set in, I learnt to needle punch. These have been some of the most trying moments in my life and I cannot put into words the solace I found in all sorts of stitching. When life throws me a curveball, I try to dodge it with some form of textiles and frantic crafting. It may not be conventional, but it works for me, and I’m not alone.
“Loss and creativity are two essential parts of the human experience, and when we experience loss personally, creativity might just be the best way out” - Dr. Shelley Carson
On the Up
Last year, LoveCrafts.com published a report surveying 1,500 participants that found “96% have used crafting to improve their mental health this year, along with music and exercise”. Their web traffic was also way up compared to the previous year, with 73% of those visitors being new to the site. This suggests that not only were existing crafters creating more, but more and more newbies are turning to needlecrafts and visual arts as an outlet.
“When you’re concentrating on following a pattern or planning which fabrics to use, your brain isn’t allowed to wonder into the dark corners where anxiety and other things live” - Nat Schwarz
Easing anxiety and depression
It is well proven that crafting can reduce anxiety and help ease depression – it can stimulate dopamine, which can help make you feel happier. I’m not a scientist, researcher, or psychologist, so I’ll refer you to MARCH network’s resources, which contains loads of interesting articles around the benefits of crafting for your mental wellbeing, such as a report showing that active engagement in artistic and creative activities is associated with reduced odds of depression in older adults.
Crafting to aid mental health is not a new tool: basketry and embroidery were both prescribed to veteran soldiers in World War 1 to help relieve both physical and mental ailments such as anxiety. This tradition can still be seen today as people across the world are led to crafts to help overcome mental ailments, for example Combat Stress offer pottery classes to help veterans’ mental health.
“Cultural activities encourage gentle movement, reduce social isolation, and lower inflammation and stress hormones such as cortisol… The arts are linked with dopamine release, which encourages cognitive flexibility, and they reduce our risk of dementia.” - Dr Daisy Fancourt, researcher.
Self-esteem / accomplishment
It’s not only the dopamine inducing effects or mediative qualities that make crafting a great tool for your mental health, but it can also improve self-esteem. Trying and succeeding at a new skill, seeing a project progress to completion, and receiving praise for our creations can all help with confidence and improve how we view ourselves. Clinical neuroscientist Catherine Levisay says “psychologists believe a strong sense of self-efficacy is key to how we approach new challenges and overcome disappointments in life”- so not only can it boost how we regard ourselves, it can teach us new ways of tackling other challenges in life.
“The feeling of being praised for something you create, especially from your loved ones, and having the opportunity to admire what you create can keep dopamine flowing.” – Dogma Athens
Communal crafting can be seen all throughout history: women working on patchwork quilts and embroideries together; craft guilds forming in the later middle ages; knitters gathering to work during wars. Groups of people working together on a common interest is a tale as old as time, and I love to see it continue in the modern world.
Crafting, and hobbies in general, are still a great way to find a community of likeminded people, which can help keep feelings of loneliness and isolation at bay - whether it is joining a local group, attending an evening class or workshop, or connecting to other people within your craft through Instagram. I know my circle has widened since crafting, both online and offline, and I see it all the time at my embroidery workshops – people arriving alone and making friends, or the whole class joining in a discussion and feeling a sense of belonging. Isolation and loneliness can be huge players within mental health and anything we can do to break free of feeling alone is worthwhile.
“I have started to go out more, meeting people who have the same interest in pottery – this prevents me from isolating myself.” – Craig, a case study from Combat Stress
Everyone can be creative
Creativity is not binary; it isn’t a case of either having it or not. Everyone possesses the skill to practice art, no matter what art form you choose. What it’s important to remember is creativity is more about the process and less about the outcome, and I believe there’s a craft out there for everyone - whether it’s embroidery, knitting, woodwork or even gardening. Yes, I include gardening - the definition of craft is “an activity involving skill in making things by hand”.
If you find yourself thinking you’re not - or can’t be - creative, then take the pressure off. Stop worrying about the end result, and don’t compare your work to others - just relax, have fun, and give it a go! When we were children, did we worry about our crayon drawings or play-dough creations? Nah! We’re much more self-conscious as adults so if you think you’re not creative, that’s usually the only thing holding you back.
“Creativity is not about finding a final result, but rather about a process that can be practiced.” – Peter Gasca
There are other health benefits too: crafting can lower blood pressure, slow the onset of dementia, distract from chronic pain and combat anxiety. You don’t need to learn a whole new skillset either – doodling and colouring in count!
It can be hard to fit creative time into busy scheduled but, needless to say, it’s a worth prioritising crafting and creating – regardless of your chosen form – because the benefits are endless.