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Why knitting can help you feel less anxious

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

By Dr Mia Hobbs

I have always had a drive to make things with my hands, which has taken various forms over the years, from cross stitch to cake decorating, but (despite being a clinical psychologist!), it took me several years to recognise the positive impact that craft was having on my mental health. At university, when everyone else was cramming the night before an exam, I would get to the point when I was just unable to revise any more and would be cross-stitching instead. On reflection, I think that while my studies and later career have been very much based on learning, thinking and problem solving; doing something with my hands felt like it activated a different part of my brain and allowed the overused parts to rest. I have also been attracted to the opportunity to do something creative, and to make something that I can see and touch – I always need a project that I can feel excited about! I think one of the reasons that knitting has become my main craft, is because I love the fact that the end product is useful – like a form of wearable art, which I can enjoy (and lets be honest, show off to others!) on a daily basis.

Since realising and reading more about how craft can benefit our mental health, I am on a mission to help more people discover the therapeutic benefits of knitting. I am now running therapeutic knitting groups in local schools, and have started the Why I Knit podcast with the aim of shining a light on the fact that most of us who knit regularly feel that it has big benefits for our mental wellbeing.

Five reasons knitting might help your mental health

1. Repetitive movements create a sense of calm

Research has shown that people who engage in crafts such as knitting and crochet can experience greater relaxation and a reduction in stress and ruminative thoughts when they are engaged in these activities*. The rhythmical bilateral movements of knitting for example are similar to those used by therapists in EMDR to help with reprocessing trauma.

2. They offer pleasure and a sense of achievement – in manageable amounts!

As psychologists, we know that when someone is feeling low in mood, one of the most effective starting points in therapy is to encourage them to do something each day that either gives them a sense of pleasure, or a sense of achievement. However, getting started is often really hard, because when we are low in mood we often feel tired and overwhelmed and the smallest tasks can feel impossible. Knitting is great for this, because it is something you can get out and work on for just a few minutes at a time, and still make progress towards a bigger goal.

3. Progress you can see and touch

Unlike many of the activities that fill our modern lives, half an hour spent knitting results in making a fabric that you can see and touch. This gives our sense of achievement an extra boost – the more senses we can use to experience something, the more powerful it is.

4. Accessible and portable

To start knitting, all you need is yarn and two needles, it is affordable and doesn’t take ages to set up, you don’t need a dedicated space for it. It is also portable. If like me, knitting makes you feel calmer and more grounded, this is a brilliant superpower to bring with you anywhere you might feel anxious. Many knitters have a small and simple project on their needles at all time to bring to doctors appointments, on public transport and even to the pub. One of my interviewees described this as a ‘safety blanket’ she could bring with her to help her to manage social situations.

5. Connection and community

During series one of the Why I Knit podcast, a theme that has come up time and time again is the way knitting connects us to other people. This has been in a variety of ways including making new friends at a knitting group or on Instagram, but also the wonderful random conversations that happen on a London Night bus when strangers comment on your knitting. This is in addition to the connection knitters felt when giving knitted gifts likened to a ’knitted hug’ to loved ones which became particularly important during the covid lockdowns when we were unable to meet friends and family in person.

How to get started with therapeutic craft in 3 simple steps

Knitting isn’t for everyone – but therapeutic craft definitely can be, and it could take many different forms: Lego, papercraft, sewing, embroidery, pottery, mindful colouring. The steps below can be applied to any number of different activities:

1. Think about what you need right now – are you feeling overwhelmed and need something simple to do with your hands to help you access some calm, or do you need a more complicated creative project to immerse yourself in? Is it the right time to learn a new skill or do you need something easy that you can start and make progress on straight away? Are there activities you enjoyed as a child? . Is there something you already know how to do, and could pick up again? Picking the right project for your needs right now is really important in making the craft experience helpful to your mental wellbeing. You have to be interested enough to give it a go, so spending some time thinking about this at the start is important. Also consider the amount of equipment/set up time required as this can be off-putting when you are getting started.

2. Break it down into small steps and monitor your progress for example by ticking them off a list when you complete a step. With knitting you could use stitch markers so that you can see how many rows you’ve knitted in a week. Recently I wanted to get back into dressmaking as I hadn’t got my sewing machine out for many months, just the time and effort of getting the sewing machine out and threaded up was enough to deter me for many months. I broke each step down into tiny tasks and wrote them down, and found this really helped them to feel more achievable and for me to get started. Once I was back in the habit, I realised I wasn’t even looking at the list as I had got far enough through making the dress, that I was really motivated to finish and wear it!

3. Show and tell – One of the great things about crafts is that you can see your progress, and so can other people! Even if you have only mastered a few stitches, try to find someone you know who knits, or is a good cheerleader, and show them or send them a picture. There are also great communities of crafters online who share their projects on Instagram or Ravelry from the very outset. It isn’t always easy to do this, as adults we often aren’t used to deliberately ‘showing off’, but as the social media companies know, getting positive feedback makes us feel good (getting ‘likes’ on Facebook and Instagram or ‘high fives’ on Peloton) and motivates us to do more of something.

If you would like to find out more about therapeutic knitting please visit my website and follow me on Instagram @knittingistherapeutic and don’t forget to tag me in any of your ‘show and tell’ posts, I would love to see your therapeutic crafting progress!

* Riley J, Corkhill B, Morris C. The Benefits of Knitting for Personal and Social Wellbeing in Adulthood: Findings from an International Survey. British Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2013;76(2):50-57.

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