Five Ways Crafting Could Help your Mental Health

– By Anne Ferrey

Life is stressful. Hey, it’s part of being human! Or maybe it’s not, but as a particularly anxiety-prone human, stress is definitely part of my daily life. As a post-doc in the UK, work involves a succession of short-term contracts, constant changes in supervisors and colleagues, and incredible pressure to somehow emerge from all this with a glowing CV that will win a permanent job.

Being stressed all the time is terrible for me – I need to find ways to take my mind off it all and get back into a more positive frame of mine. One thing that works really well for me is crochet.  Something about the combination of repetitive motion, creative activity and seeing your project get bigger and more beautiful every day is extremely satisfying. Spending some time doing a ripple stitch in the evening while I chat to my partner improves my mood, makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something and helps to get my mind out of the stress-related rut it can fall into during the day.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. While doing a yarn-related public engagement event, several members of the public asked us whether there is scientific evidence of the benefits of knitting and crochet. We looked into this and the short answer is – not much! I personally feel that crocheting really helps me, but anecdotes are not evidence. We started the Yarnfulness Project to put some hard numbers to our general feeling that working with yarn was helping our mental health, and to collect any other evidence that might be out there.

How might crafting improve mental health? Here are five possible ways we found by searching the scientific literature:

1. Distraction
One of the worst problems associated with feeling stressed is the ‘brain treadmill’ – you can’t stop thinking about whatever you’re worried about and just go round and round the same unpleasant thoughts until it feels like you’ve worn a rut into your brain. (And in fact, this is sort of what happens – repeating thoughts over and over fires the same neural circuits, and that repeated firing actually strengthens those circuits). This going over and over of negative thoughts is called rumination, and there’s evidence that finding some way to distract yourself from these thoughts can improve your mood[1, 2]. What kind of distraction? Well, it’s really up to you what works best… but certainly a hobby that keeps your hands and mind occupied might work!

2.    Socialising with friends
Knitting or crochet can be a solitary hobby, but it doesn’t have to be. Lots of crafters find ways to combine their yarncraft with socialising. This can be virtual – joining an online forum like Ravelry – or in person at knitting or crafting meetups and groups. Social isolation has a negative effect on both health and mental health[3] and having social relationships with other people can have a protective effect on mental health[4]. So combining your crafting with socialising can help you feel better – and indeed, college students surveyed rated social involvement as one of their main reasons for knitting or crocheting[5].

3. Touching the yarn
For me, one of the joys of yarncraft is its tactile aspects – which is to say, touching all the beautifully textured yarns with their different types of springiness, thickness and softness. There’s a bit of evidence that touching pleasant things (like velvet, or perhaps yarn) can lead to an improvement in quality of life[6] in older people. Could the very fact that touching beautiful yarn is a pleasant experience lead to benefits?

4. Using your creativity
Creative self-expression has long been used as a form of therapy – for example, art therapy. But it has been suggested that crafts might “serve to connect the individual to the world in a productive and creative way”[7] and shouldn’t be thought of as “less than” more formal types of art.  Qualitative research with crafters indicated that crafters use their craft to express aspects of their identity[8] – a key component of good mental health.

5. Staying focussed on the present
Worrying about the future is not good for you. Focussing on the present moment has vast positive benefits – the field of positive psychology refers to the experience of complete absorption in the present moment as ‘flow'[9] and it’s thought to be one of the peak human experiences. A survey asking college students about their reasons for doing craft-related activities found that one of them was to ‘stay present-focussed’.[5] (This paper was published in the delightfully-named ‘Journal of Happiness Studies’). This suggests that crafting might not only improve mood, but could help people to focus on the present rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future – and perhaps even get into a state of flow.

So can knitting or crochet help your mental health? The hard evidence isn’t there, but there are a few tantalizing bits of evidence that it can improve your mood, provide a pleasant distraction and keep you focussed on the present moment – which would certainly move you in the right direction.

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1.    Broderick, P.C., Mindfulness and Coping with Dysphoric Mood: Contrasts with Rumination and Distraction. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2005. 29(5): p. 501-510.
2.    Nolen-hoeksema, S. and J. Morrow, Effects of rumination and distraction on naturally occurring depressed mood. Cognition and Emotion, 1993. 7(6): p. 561-570.
3.    House, J., K. Landis, and D. Umberson, Social relationships and health. Science, 1988. 241(4865): p. 540-545.
4.    Kawachi, I. and L.F. Berkman, Social ties and mental health. Journal of Urban Health, 2001. 78(3): p. 458-467.
5.    Collier, A.F. and H.A. Wayment, Psychological Benefits of the “Maker” or Do-It-Yourself Movement in Young Adults: A Pathway Towards Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2017.
6.    Mammarella, N., B. Fairfield, and A. Di Domenico, When touch matters: An affective tactile intervention for older adults. Geriatrics & Gerontology International, 2012. 12(4): p. 722-724.
7.    Kaimal, G., A.M.L. Gonzaga, and V. Schwachter, Crafting, health and wellbeing: findings from the survey of public participation in the arts and considerations for art therapists. Arts & Health, 2017. 9(1): p. 81-90.
8.    Gauer, M., Crafting Identities: Female crafters and their expressions of identity through crafts. [thesis]. Department of Psychology, 2011, University of Oslo: Oslo.
9.    Csikszentmihalyi, M., LeFevre, J., Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,, 1989. 56(5): p. 815-822.

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