Ditch the Prozac, take up crafting?

Quilting helped save TK Harrison. She even built a business around it:

Her childhood ricocheted through abusive parents who orphaned her and her four siblings, and foster homes that weren’t always safe.

At 19, while in cosmetology school, she took up quilting. She’s now 50, living in Texas with her husband and four kids. Quilting isn’t her job, per se — income from her paid projects barely covers the cost of her hobby. And she did have a long decade of traditional therapy.

But quilting gave her goals.

With every stitch she focuses on prayer — a meditation in thread.

"I poured all of my troubles into each step of the quilting processes," she says. "It continues to remain a cathartic way for me to think, to pray and to focus on something besides my family and my health."

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Quilters, knitters and others are quick to describe their craft as “therapy.” If we talk about retail therapy and chocolate therapy, why not crafting therapy?

And as the popularity of crafting grows, researchers studying brain-craft links are increasingly finding mental health benefits. Let’s be honest — there aren’t a lot of studies that focus on the mental impact of one craft vs. another. But increasingly, research shows that picking up needles, of any kind, isn’t just about feeling more satisfied or happier, though those are oft-mentioned benefits.

We’re talking help with depression, ADHD, anxiety and a host of other mental health issues.

The Research

Betsan Corkhill is a licensed physiotherapist in Bath, England, and a wellbeing coach. She created the Website in 2005, dedicated to researching knitting as therapy, and has published a journal article on her research of the mind-knitting connection.

Knitting in particular works, she says, because it uses two-handed, bilateral, cross-body hand motions.

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"You are using up an awful lot of brain capacity to perform a coordinated series of movements," she says. "The more capacity you take up by being involved in a complex task, the less capacity you have for bad thoughts."

Corkhill created a knitting therapy program at the pain clinic in a local hospital. She describes success with using knitting to curb anxiety attacks. If patients can learn to understand their triggers and the first sign of an attack, they can whip out their knitting to distract the anxious feelings and calm themselves.

"Our research is showing that knitting above other crafts — in terms of the benefits it has — because of the movements involved and because of its portability," she says. Other hobbies can have similar impacts on the brain — drumming, for example — but you can’t really drum on a bus.

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Corkhill’s own published study focused on a survey of more than 3,500 knitters worldwide, and found almost universal anecdotes of the calming aspect of needlework. From Japan to Sweden, Corkhill says, almost all of the knitters describe a sense of calm, and satisfaction, that puts them in a solid mental state when they take up knitting.

A small 2009 study in the Eat Weight Disorders journal — with only 38 participants — found positive links between knitting and lessened anxiety among women suffering from eating disorders.

In the D.C. suburbs, Project Knitwell has partnered with a handful of hospitals and health agencies to provide knitting lessons, kits and support to patients, their relatives and caregivers. They’ve tracked the positive impact of knitting on stressed-out oncology nurses at the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

Not just anxiety

Virginian Smith, a 28-year-old mother of two young children in Vermont, says knitting helps her focus — vital for someone diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She has been on and off medications since being diagnosed in college.

She’s currently finishing up a master’s degree in mental health counseling at Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H.

"If I wasn’t able to knit in classes, it would be a lot harder to pay attention," she says, laughing. "I just straight up wouldn’t get that much out of class, which is not what your want your mental health counselor to say — that I wasn’t able to engage in classes."

She takes simple projects to school, like a basic ribbed scarf that she can easily pause to take notes or raise her hand and participate in class discussions.

She’s currently interning with a smoking cessation program, and has suggested knitting as a potential way to help one of her coworker’s clients keep their hands busy without a cigarette. And she recommended the craft to a friend who suffered from anxiety and depression.

She joined a knitting group, and now, Smith says, “She’s a way better knitter than I.”

How does it work?

Studies, such as ones above, and one from the OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health journal that tracked 18 quilters, describe the benefits of needlecraft:

  • Concentration and focus blocks out negative thoughts

  • Repetitive motion has a calming effect, and gives space for contemplation

  • Sensory input can trigger positive thoughts: the smell of an iron on damp cloth, the feel of silken yarn through the fingers

  • Self-expression helps people process when trouble hits: the quilting study notes that scores of women created quilts in honor of the 9/11 attacks as way to work through their fear and grieving

  • Socializing while crafting, such as with a knitting group or quilting circle, boosts overall satisfaction and happiness

That’s not to say every project could be your own personal Xanax. Tackling tricky patterns or learning new techniques can have the opposite effect. And not everyone has the patience, coordination or even, basic interest, in crafting.

But for those who have an interest and develop an aptitude, here’s a new way to justify your fabric stash: your mental health is worth it.

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