In the wake of a broken ankle and an unplanned semester off from college last fall, I found that dealing with my previously undiagnosed mental health issues had become unavoidable. I went to the doctor and came back with crutches, diagnoses of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, and a new prescription. But even though the sudden glut of free time caused many of my anxiety stressors to abate temporarily, the prospect of sitting at home all day, alone with my thoughts and with few responsibilities to distract me, was terrifying.
I needed something to keep me busy. Desperate for something to do besides refresh Twitter, I found a cheap children’s beginner cross-stitch kit on Amazon. I made it through my first pattern of a cactus quickly (probably because it was aimed at 8-year-olds), and ordered more. Soon I was buying supplies and finding my own patterns online, taking on more ambitious projects.
As I got further into things, I noticed something: When I was focused on my stitching, I felt less anxious. I didn’t have that bubbling feeling in my stomach. I had to pay attention to what my hands were doing, so I wasn’t tempted to think about stressful scenarios and play them out in my head. Was I imagining it, or was crafting really helping me manage my anxiety?
“Helpful treatments for anxiety include distraction, mindfulness, and grounding techniques that bring you back to the current moment. Crafts can be a great grounding and soothing distraction and healthy part of a treatment plan to tackle anxiety," explains Dr. Melissa Welby, a Connecticut-based psychiatrist. Having a crafting project, she adds, "makes it easier to let go of anxiety when it comes up or to pick up that unfinished project and get distracted by creating.”
Several studies have shown that people with anxiety who use mindfulness practices as distractions have found relief from their symptoms. Some of these people might rely on yoga, or meditation; for others, like myself, it's crafting. Experts have found that the repetitive motions of knitting, for instance, can create a relaxed state of mind. In some studies, it even lowered subjects' heart rates and blood pressure, and reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
For some people, knitting has been a proven help in dealing with stress or nerves. “I knit especially when there's a big change in my life,” Jodi Wei, a London-based college student, tells Mic. The mindlessness of working with her hands, she notes, calms her down when she feels unsettled. “It's a good break, and when I'm far into a pattern, it slows my mind down and I can process more clearly and productively.”
The lack of negative repercussions from crafting and other forms of art can also appeal to people with anxiety. “Making something and enjoying myself through a process that isn’t at all self destructive is probably how painting helps me the most," explains Sara Ciurca, a recent high school graduate from Rochester, New York. "Like, running too much can hurt my body, but painting doesn’t... It’s a nice outlet to have and I love knowing I can get better only with hours of work. It’s a real discipline.”
For me, even though cross-stitching wasn’t particularly difficult, it gave my mind something else to focus on besides anxiety. Normally, when my anxiety starts to build, I go through increasingly scary situations in my head and feel overwhelmed, like there’s nothing I can do. My heart beats fast, and it’s hard to sleep or eat. I might listen to a podcast or watch TV while I work, but when I was cross-stitching, using my hands and checking in with my pattern kept me from veering off into that dark world.
Crafting also helped with my depression, although it's hard to say where exactly my depression ends and anxiety begins. Besides just being a distraction, my cross-stitch pieces gave me a sense of accomplishment. Depression usually robs me of my motivation, and makes me feel like nothing I do is worthwhile. Yet that fall, even though I had to spend most of my days on the couch, it was satisfying to see that I had created something tangible.
Many online crafting communities are conscious of the mental health benefits the practice can have, and some of them even encourage discussion on the subject. At The Spruce Crafts, an arts and crafts hobby website, writer Pam Pendersen recently discussed how, through interviews and anecdotal experience, she'd found that people who cross-stitched often listed calmness, focus, and stress reduction as perks of the hobby.
A quick search for “cross-stitch anxiety,” meanwhile, finds many other bloggers and craft forum posters who have seemingly come to the same conclusions. Some users refer to their crafts as a “form of therapy,” or “yoga for the mind,” due to the way that the practice forces them to slow down and focus. Others even take it a step further and craft about their mental health struggles. Etsy is home to dozens of embroidery and cross-stitch patterns that read things like “anxiety lies” or “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store bought are fine,” usually decorated with cute, flowery borders.
That fall, once my ankle healed, I went back to school and graduated, and today, I have less time to cross-stitch than I used to. But just knowing that I have a coping method that works is sometimes enough. I look forward to the time I do have to cross-stitch, viewing it as a treat and a chance to temporarily forget about my responsibilities and stressors.
That said, crafting is not a substitute for seeing a mental health professional, regular therapy, and/or medication, if those options are right for you. Still, once you get past the initial hurdle of learning the basics of whatever form of art you choose, it can be a useful addition to your mental health plan.
“The more regularly a person takes time for themselves to do something they enjoy, the better balanced they will be," says Dr. Welby.