Sewing for Mental Health – How Sewing Can Improve Your Mood

Has sewing helped you through a hard time? Turns out, there’s science behind it.

October 10 is World Mental Health Day. The issues around mental health, from PTSD to addiction to depression, is experiencing renewed interest in this country. While there are a variety of coping methods, sewing (and crafting in general) is one effective technique. For more background on the subject, Sew News spoke to Anna-Lisa Greenwade, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Mental Health Partners in Colorado.

SN: Can sewing help with symptoms of depression?
AG: Yes. While the origin of depression is multifactorial, it’s believed that inadequate serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine play a role. Completing a craft project as well as simply being creative can release dopamine and enhance a sense of well-being.

Oftentimes with crafting there are multiple stages or phases of a project: With successful completion of each phase, an individual may achieve a sense of mastery and satisfaction. One of the hallmarks of depression is low self-esteem; creating is an avenue to strengthen a sense of self and rebuild confidence.

SN: What are the benefits of doing a repetitive craft or having a creative outlet, such as sewing, from the mental health perspective?
AG: One symptom of depression is negative thinking. For some individuals, it can be quite difficult or feel inauthentic to simply replace deeply rooted negative thoughts with more uplifting ideas during a depressive episode. Crafting can serve as a tool to engage in something other than a loop of negative thoughts. Essentially, crafting can reduce the amount of time and brain space taken up by harmful negative thought loops. In my experience, this can serve as a bridge to allow more space for healing ideas, such as optimism and gratitude.

Not all coping strategies are created equally. For example, some individuals end up using alcohol, drugs or unhealthy relationships during high stress times in their lives. I always tell my clients that if it were as easy as telling yourself “don’t drink” (or “binge eat,” etc.), you would have already done it. One reason is that telling yourself to not do something, even if you know it’s not in your best interest, doesn’t alleviate the original distress. Having an alternative healthy coping strategy in advance is critical. A creative outlet or engaging in a repetitive craft is an empowering self-regulating and soothing tool during particularly stressful times.

Finally, there’s a great deal of research on the power of social connectedness and overall well-being. Belonging to a community of fellow crafters not only enhances your creative process and understanding of your craft, it may cultivate a higher degree of social connectedness that not only reduces vulnerability to depression, but also can be a key element of recovery.

SN: Can crafting/sewing be helpful for trauma recovery? If so, how?
AG: Absolutely. During a traumatic event, an individual’s brain can go “offline” as a protective mechanism: adrenaline causes blood flow to increase in an area of the brain called the amygdala, which perceives threat, and decrease in our prefrontal cortex, which is key in focus and concentration. This is one reason it’s common for individuals who experience trauma to have major gaps in their memory during and after the traumatic event.

Imagine being attacked by a bear. Your adrenaline kicks in (think fight, flight or freeze), blood flow increases to your amygdala so that you are equipped to protect yourself and decreases in the prefrontal cortex. At that point in time, you don’t exactly need the same high level focus and concentration you would to do a math problem.

Following repeated traumatic events, an individual may begin to experience difficulty with focus, concentration and remaining present in day-to-day activities. One reason is that a person’s body may begin inappropriately releasing adrenaline, as if they were in a life-threatening situation. As you can imagine, for some individuals this reduction in focus can make utilizing traditional coping strategies such as meditation more challenging. I think that crafting is a useful practice in remaining engaged and present — it flexes and trains our brains to remain focused on the task at hand. I’ve seen crafting serve as a platform to strengthen and rebuild an individual’s capacity to remain focused in their daily lives and serve as a springboard to access additional coping skills.

Has sewing helped you through a difficult period in your life?  Share your story here or on our Facebook page if you feel inspired. 

Other sewing topics you may enjoy:

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