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Excerpt: The Healing Power of Crafts:
Using Your Hobbies to Gain Mental, Physical and
by Nancy Monson (April 4, 2005)
(Note: The following is an excerpt from Nancy's book, The
Healing Power of Crafts: Using Your Hobbies to Gain Mental, Physical
and Spiritual Benefits, published by Hats Off Press, 2005; all
rights reserved. The book is available at www.wheatmark.com,
for $12.95. For information about selling the book in your store, or
to contact Nancy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nancy is a writer living in Fairfield, CT. )
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.
Far from it. In fact, from the time that man began recording time,
the creative arts have been used as unique forms of expression,
communication and release. Just think of the stick figures found on
the cave walls of our earliest ancestors, the decorative vases
molded by ancient Chinese cultures or the ornate tombs of the early
Egyptians. 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. Likewise, abused
children are asked to draw pictures to help therapists gain access
to their feelings and fears. Arts and crafts are even used as part
of the therapeutic rehabilitation of the disabled, the mentally
disadvantaged and those with substance abuse problems, and to engage
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 pastimes included sewing a simple project, playing a card game,
painting at an easel, playing a hand-held video game and reading a
newspaper. 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. "Crafts make you concentrate and focus
on the here and now and distract you from everyday pressures and
problems. They’re stress-busters in the same way that meditation,
deep breathing, visual imagery and watching fish are."
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—women, of course, are taught that everyone else’s
needs should come first—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.
Letting in the Power of Crafts
In interviewing creative women for her first book, Gail McMeekin
learned that there are no mistakes in creating, only lessons.
"Many inventions are the result of so-called errors," she
says. "When you suspend judgment about what is and what isn’t
a mistake, you open your mind to creating extraordinary things and
to receiving extraordinary things too. You let in the healing power
Reaping the Benefits
To tap into the healing power of crafts, follow 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. "You want to release your creativity, not
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.
The other key to achieving flow lies in setting goals. These
benchmarks should be challenging enough to keep you interested and
involved, but not impossible to achieve, says Dr. Reiner. You have
to push yourself a little bit to hone your skill. If the craft is
too humdrum, you'll get bored and stop doing it.
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
Don't become overly perfectionistic. Yes, you want your craft
to challenge you. But don't go crazy. Many crafters—myself include—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
There are no mistakes in creating, only lessons. "Many
inventions are the result of so-called mistakes," notes
McMeekin. "When you suspend judgment, you open your mind to
creating extraordinary things."
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. Remember, you're on your own
journey." 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
American Craft Council, 212-274-0630, www.craftcouncil.org.
(Excellent links to a multitude of
specific crafting societies.)
American Quilter's Society, 270-898-7903, www.AQSquilt.com.
American Sewing Guild, 816-444-3500, Web site: www.asg.org.
Knitting Guild of America, 800-274-6034, www.tkga.com.
Arrowmount School of Arts and Crafts, P.O. Box 567, 556 Parkway,
Gatlinburg, TN 37738; 865-436-5860, www.arrowmount.org.
(Week-long classes are offered in clay, fiber-fabric, metal,
enameling, drawing and painting, photography and other craft topics.
Classes start at $280.)
Dillman's Creative Arts Foundation, P.O. Box 98, Lac du Flambeau,
WI 54538; 715-588-3143, www.dillmans.com.
(Offers beginner and advanced oil, watercolor and acrylic painting
and photography classes. Week-long classes start at $650.)
Fletcher Farm School for the Arts and Crafts, 611 Route 13 South,
Ludlow, VT 05149; 802-228-8770, http://members.aol.com/ffcrafts/ffcrafts.htm.
(Spend an idyllic summer weekend or week learning and perfecting
crafts from art to basketry to metalwork and quilting. Week-end
classes start at $85, week-long classes at $180.)
Penland School of Crafts, P.O. Box 37, Penland, NC 28765;
(The nation's oldest craft school offers courses in ceramics,
drawing, fiber arts, glassblowing, jewelry making, photography or
woodcarving starting at Classes last one to eight weeks and start at