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Craft to Heal:Taking Time Out to Pursue a Hobby Can Have Benefits for Your Body and Soul

Contributed by Nancy Monson

Time heals all wounds. But until time kicks in, what do you do while you’re waiting? How do you relieve stress and decompress from everyday pressures? How do you ease the pain, distract your mind, soothe your soul? If you’re like me (and a whole lot of celebrities, it seems), you craft.

I’ve been a crafter for as long as I can remember. I quilt. I sew. I collage. I paint. I make wreaths. I design note cards. I love to create something out of nothing and put my personal stamp on it. I love the process, and I love the product. The creative arts, my crafts, keep my hands, heart and mind busy, and sometimes I think they’re the only things that keep me sane. And I’m not alone. In fact, the creative arts have historically been used as unique forms of expression, communication and release. Now, in the twenty-first century, these arts have been elevated from mere crafts to important components of healing therapies for people with illnesses, both physical and psychological. Patients with cancer, for instance, are encouraged to paint, to visualize their bodies fighting off malignant cells and to pour their thoughts and emotions into journals.
But the best news is that you don’t have to be ill to benefit.

“We’re now finding that crafts are beneficial for healthy people, too,” says Gail McMeekin, M.S.W., author of the inspiring books The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women and The Power of Positive Choices. “Thanks to their ability to tune you into yourself and your feelings, crafts clearly have physical, psychological and spiritual powers.” Adds Diane Ericson, a California fabric artist, teacher and pattern designer, “Crafts are a way of valuing yourself and giving to yourself. They allow you to express what’s inside.”

The Study of Crafting
Crafting is a multibillion-dollar business in America, and over three-quarters of American households have at least one family member who spends an average of 7.5 hours weekly engaged in crafting or hobbies. But despite crafting’s popularity—it’s actually become cool to be a crafter, since Julia Roberts knits and a whole slew of celebrities, from Jennifer Aniston to Tony Bennett, paint—researchers haven’t spent much time exploring its benefits.

Luckily, there is one landmark study—one that was deemed important enough to be mentioned in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. In the study, which was sponsored by the Home Sewing Association, researchers took 30 women (15 experienced sewers and 15 novice sewers) and measured their blood pressure, heart rate, perspiration rate and skin temperature—all gauges of stress—via biofeedback before and after they performed five leisure activities that required similar eye-hand movements. The results showed that sewing was the most relaxing activity of the five studied: It produced drops in heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration. In contrast, stress measures increased after the women performed the other tasks, especially after playing a card or video game.

According to Robert Reiner, Ph.D., a New York University psychologist and the study’s author, the findings prove what crafters already know: Crafts de-stress. “The act of performing a craft is incompatible with worry, anger, obsession and anxiety,” he says.
Harvard University’s world-renowned mind/body expert, Herbert Benson, M.D., says that repetitive and rhythmic crafts such as knitting may even evoke what he calls the relaxation response—a feeling of bodily and mental calm that’s been scientifically proven to enhance health and reduce the risk of heart disease, anxiety and depression. “You can induce the relaxation response through any type of repetition, whether it’s repeating a word, prayer or action, such as knitting or sewing,” he notes. “The act of doing a task over and over again breaks the train of everyday thought, and that’s what releases stress.”

Unfortunately, many of us push crafting and creativity to the bottom of our To Do list. Maybe we feel guilty for doing something for ourselves—or maybe we feel that even when we’re relaxing, we should be doing something productive. But now that research is showing the creative arts are good for our health and relationships, we no longer need to view leisure pursuits as self-indulgences. We can recast them in a new light: Crafts aren’t just enjoyable, they’re downright therapeutic.

Reaping the Benefits
To tap into the healing power of crafts, start by following these guidelines:

  • Find a craft you love—the more rhythmic and repetitive, the better. Passion for a craft keeps you interested, while the rhythmic and repetitive nature confers the mind-body benefit. Knitting, sewing, crocheting, woodworking and other rhythmic crafts are great choices.
  • Make time for your craft every week, and ideally every day. Don’t think of this time as a self-indulgence, but a medical necessity. Dr. Benson advises performing the relaxation response or meditation daily for at least 20 minutes—so the same holds true if you’re doing a craft. “View your craft as if it were a medication that you need to take every day for optimal benefit,” says Dr. Reiner. “If you stop taking the drug or doing the craft, you’ll lose the benefit.” Of course, carving out craft time can be a tough task for women. “But even if it’s difficult to schedule, it’s important to make time for crafts because they allow you to tune into your body and your creativity, to release frustration and tap into your deepest emotions,” McMeekin says.
  • Create a space just for crafting. Set up a dedicated craft space in your home–rather than occasionally commandeering the dining room table—so you can play whenever you have a few moments to spare. “Put your craft supplies in a basket or in the car, or take over part of a room or office,” she suggests. “Just try to find a space that is yours alone.”
  • Take a class to advance your skills. An added bonus: You’ll meet other crafters. “Countless studies show that socializing with others is an effective way to release stress,” says Dr. Reiner. “We are social animals and we need to interact with other people to stay healthy.” It’s also empowering to find a mentor who can offer guidance when you need it. “Just make sure your mentor allows you to express yourself, rather than dictating that you do things her way,” advises McMeekin.
    o Find flow. “Flow,” a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., author of
    Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes a state of complete absorption and intense joy. When you’re in a state of flow, you lose track of time as you focus on the task at hand—a feeling akin to “being in the zone,” which is what athletes speak of. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has studied 3,000 people to find out how they achieve flow—and actively engaging in a craft that you’re passionate about is one way to do it. Sedentary activities such as watching television don’t bring flow, but painting a landscape may.
  • Enjoy the process. Rather than focusing on the end product, heed the process. “What you make is only the residue of how much fun you’ve had,” says Diane Ericson, a fabric artist, teacher and creativity coach in Aptos, California. The key is to revel in the task of creating—the fabric, the colors, the patterns, the new idea—rather than just mindlessly pushing to finish a project. “The act of performing a craft is incompatible with worry, anger, obsession and anxiety, and that’s one of the ways in which we believe crafts are healing,” adds Dr. Reiner. “Crafts make you concentrate and focus on the here and now.”
  • Don’t become overly perfectionistic. Yes, you want your craft to challenge you. But don’t go crazy. Many crafters—myself included—tend to beat themselves up if they do a less-than-stellar job, and end up negating the health-promoting benefits. “Give yourself permission to be imperfect and to play,” advises Ericson. “If you have to make a project just right, you set yourself up with just one more chore to accomplish. You lose the joy and the fun.” There are no mistakes in creating, only lessons. “Many inventions are the result of so-called mistakes,” notes McMeekin.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. As a quilter, when I look at the spectacular works of other women, I sometimes want to cry. I know I’ll never be as good. Instead of inspiring me, their quilts make me feel like a less-than. “It can be deadly to compare your work to that of others,” warns Ericson. “That puts a damper on both your creativity and your enjoyment.” So instead of measuring yourself against someone else’s yardstick, try to find inspiration in the work of others.

If you do your craft for yourself and yourself alone, you’ll have fun–and
you’ll reap the healing benefits for your body, mind and soul.

THIS ARTICLE IS EXCERPTED WITH PERMISSION FROM CRAFT TO HEAL: SOOTHING YOUR SOUL WITH SEWING, PAINTING, AND OTHER PASTIMES by Nancy Monson
Hats Off Publishers, 2005
All rights reserved

Nancy Monson is a freelance writer living in Connecticut. Purchase her book, Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes, at bookstores nationwide as well as online at amazon.com and barnes&noble.com. And visit her website at www.nancymonson.com.