5 ways craft can improve your mental health – by Liz Smith
I learned to knit and crochet last year at beginner classes at Baa Ram Ewe in Leeds, although I must confess that with one thing and another, I’ve been a bit sporadic about doing it regularly. Last Saturday though, I spent the day on a Wild Goose crochet retreat, so I was able to reconnect with my love of crafting, while sitting in a warm tent in the middle of a beautiful wood eating cake and drinking tea. It reminded me that often, doing things to help our mental health can actually be really simple.
Crafts have actually been proven to help mental health in several different ways. Here are the top five ways crafts are good for the stressed-out mind.
I struggle a lot with some of the abstract concepts of mindfulness, but one that I can understand is being present in the here and now and focused 100% on what you are doing. When I knit or crochet, I am totally focused on doing the stitches, counting them, following my pattern. It doesn’t have to be knitting or crochet – it could be painting, drawing, sculpture, making jewellery – any kind of craft that you really enjoy and that speaks to you, that you can get absorbed in and take yourself away from everyday concerns.
Creating something from scratch yourself brings a sense of pride and achievement, especially when it’s a newly learnt skill. These days, we don’t really have to make much ourselves, so it’s easy to just think these are outdated skills we don’t need, but maybe we actually need them not for utility, but to fulfil our human need to create. This is even backed by neuroscientists, who have found that the process of creating something with our own hands or doing art actually releases the “happy chemical” dopamine. The playfulness of doing crafts can also take us back to happy memories of childhood.
According to psychologists, doing “new or complex activities” like arts and crafts stimulates our brains to make new connections, which is known as “neuroplasticity”. Through creating art and craft works, we prompt connectivity between different parts of the brain and create new links. This is thought to help us become more resilient to stress.
Good old distraction techniques are actually an effective way to try and break the cycle of negative or intrusive thoughts that can come with mental illness. Repetitive crafts like knitting and crochet are said to be particularly calming. Self-care and mental health crisis response plans often involve the use of the patient’s favourite creative activity to provide a distraction when emotions and thoughts begin to intensify.
People in stressful jobs, particularly those that involve caring for others, can be prone to burnout and “compassion fatigue”. A study involving oncology nurses in Georgetown showed that learning to knit, and practicing regularly, improved the nurses’ feelings of stress and burnout, brought them together over something other than work, and helped alleviate fatigue. So crafting isn’t just good for patients – it’s good for the carers too.
The benefits of arts and crafts can be increased if they are done socially. Evening classes involving a creative subject have been shown to help foster new friendships, provide a sense of social connectivity, and increase people’s physical activity, even if the classes themselves were not related to being physically active.
Maybe our grandmothers were on to something with their knitting circles after all.
Liz Smith is a Leeds based freelance writer and editor and is part of the Wild Goose Wellbeing communications team. She loves vegan food, the outdoors and crochet!