The healing power of stitch
When the world seems broken, it’s easy to feel broken with it.
Maybe you’ve been in solitary confinement with your thoughts for days and weeks.
Maybe you’re out in the world but fearful that the wrong action can bring unthinkable consequences. It’s no wonder worry and anxiety can slip into your psyche and refuse to leave.
In the dark times, when you’re overwhelmed with events you can’t control, it feels that it might be easy for your mental health to spiral downward. And if you’ve struggled with mental or physical health issues before (and who of us haven’t?), how can you ride this almost perfect storm of global uncertainty?
Be calmed. Be soothed. It’s ok.
Because you’ve already grabbed that lifeline.
You’re already healing and strengthening your mental health
You’re already letting in wellness.
The secret is your creative practice.
Your creative practice is a pathway to emerging mentally healthier than before. Your practice has the power to soothe, to comfort and to strengthen you.
Creative practice is therapy. You have the power to improve your mental health, stitch by stitch. And that’s powerful to know, right?
Your brain on textile art
Making things makes things better. And it makes things better than you think.
Yes, your practice can soothe you and bring you through the dark times, but purposeful, regular practice can also power up your mental health.
It’s just science.
Here’s how: The lizard, the mouse and the monkey
Your brain has evolved over millions of years, and, as beautifully described by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, has three main parts:
Your lizard brain: Your lizard brain is your brain stem, the most primitive part of your brain. All your lizard brain wants is to feel safe.
Your mouse brain: This is your limbic system. All your mouse brain wants is to be nourished.
Your monkey brain: This is your cortex. All your monkey brain wants is to feel connected.
For good mental health, you need to stroke the lizard, feed the mouse and hug the monkey.
How can threading a needle and making some marks lighten the load?
1. The power of intention
When you decide to create a new piece, or just play around with thread for half an hour, you’re making a goal-directed decision. And when you make a decision, you feel more in control. You’re learning to have agency.
Decision made, your focus narrows, irrelevant details and distractions dissolve and your brain stem calms (you’re stroking the lizard).
Taking that tiny decision – to hunt down that yarn, to try straight stitch instead of something fancy – makes you better at decision making. And this, slowly but surely, improves your confidence and mood.
When you focus on making, you’re taking the decision to practice self-care and self-compassion. You’re on your own side.
2. Creative practice as respite
Teresa Valverde and her family live in Spain and had 35 days of strict lockdown – even a walk outside wasn’t allowed. She says, “Cooped up in the house, trying to work online, while doing our best to homeschool two adolescents got very difficult. But when things get anxious, I retreat for a while into a world of colours, threads and fabrics.”
Creative practice is your safe space. It’s a refuge of calm and quiet, hidden away from the noisy world outside – and inside.
As you focus solely on what you’re doing, the shrill voice of your inner critic is silenced and you get a break from those old stories you’re telling yourself. You’re choosing where your attention goes, rather than let it run on automatic pilot.
Alison Wyatt’s creative practice, through the free TextileArtist.org Community Stitch Challenge, gave her respite from her own lockdown, which started in November 2019 with surgery for breast cancer. She says, “This has been a life saver for me. It’s allowed me to escape the “real” world on a temporary basis.”
Barbara Daly was caring for her 93-year-old mother when her son was rushed to hospital. Her creative practice saw her through. Barbara says, “For one hour a day, I got to focus on complete self-care instead of what was going on on the outside. It was the greatest gift I could have given myself.”
Anxiety can’t compete with attention.
3. Creative practice as meditation
When you’re focussed on your stitching, when you’re in the rhythm of making, only now exists. There is only the present. The past has fallen away, and the future disappears. And when you’re paying attention to the present, you’re practicing mindfulness.
“Stitching is like my yoga practice.”Gregory Todd Wilkins
Your practice is contemplative. It’s meditation in movement, your hand and mind in perfect harmony and, as you stitch, you gain the benefits. There are hundreds of scientific studies that suggest a mindfulness practice can have positive mental and physical effects, and it’s especially effective in reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
“In the chaos lies the calm.”Armande France
As you stitch, your breathing slows and this tells your brain “Everything’s ok. There’s no danger.” You’re deactivating your brain from red alert to amber to green. You’re self-soothing.
For artist Joke Lunsing, hand-stitching has become a means of practising mindfulness. She says, “It allows me to be focused and calm. I love being in the bubble I create when I’m hand-stitching.”
4. Creative practice as nourishment
When life is extra hard, we all need a break – not just from the difficulties, but a break that gives us nourishment and the strength to get up and get going again.
Your creative practice does this. It feeds the mouse (your limbic system), which is looking for nourishment and reward.
When you’re experimenting with colour and fabric; when you’re playing with that weird stitch that you haven’t got quite “right” yet, when you’ve gained the satisfaction of completing that challenge, you feel nourished.
Nourishment can take many forms: the satisfaction of learning how to properly back your work (and the effects of learning on your brain is a whole other article); the excitement of completing your first stitched portrait; the pleasure of your daughter’s delight when you present her with something you made for her.
It all counts. It’s all nourishment.
5. Creative practice as recovery
Creative practice is a way through dark times. It’s a path towards the light. It’s a safe space to weather the storms of our own emotions and anxieties as they rise and fall, or to work through the pain of loss, grief and fear.
2015 almost destroyed artist Mary Carson. She lost both her brother and her mother. She says, “During my ‘dark time’, I turned to slow stitching as a way to get out of my head and take a break from the sadness. Now that they’ve been gone for a few years, it still provides emotional support, but it’s also leading me to a new vocation as a textile artist.”
Textile artist Ami James has bipolar disorder type 1. The most stressful part of her condition is anxiety. She says, “Anxiety for me was a living nightmare. It triggered panic attacks, hallucinations and paranoia. My thoughts raced with negative and dark things. But when I took up hand stitching, my mind was still racing, but full of positivity instead. I had a mind full of fabrics, quilts, new equipment, and things I wanted to try.”
Ami found that her practice helped to stop the hallucinations, paranoia and low moods. “Sewing became some sort of a therapy for me. I would try and do something crafty every day. The changes in me didn’t go unnoticed – my family and friends all noticed. Learning new skills and techniques was also keeping me grounded and focused.”
6. Creative practice as connection
We’re social animals. Even the most introverted of us gain from being connected with people who understand us, who want the same thing. When we connect, we’re rewarding our cortex. We’re hugging the monkey (remember her?).
An array of evidence shows us that positive relationships and shared activities contribute to our physical and mental wellbeing.
Making textile art is as much a traditionally shared experience as well as a solitary one. Think American quilting circles, sewing groups, the recent Community Stitch Challenge, where nearly 20,000 stitchers from around the world connected, created and chatted together.
We’ve been rewarded to discover how that feeling of connection has helped you and the other members of the TextileArtist.org community: how it has lifted spirits, encouraged progress and experimentation, and helped you learn new techniques and look at your work differently. You told us you felt heard, valued and supported.
The community aspect of creative practice has a powerful, positive impact on mental health.
Getting better, feeling better, being better
When you pick up your needle, you’re practicing a way of being that can change the way you think and feel for the better. With every stitch, you’re dispelling the negative and welcoming the positive into your life. And that’s a healing power that’s truly yours, ready for you at any time of the day or night.
Are you ready to find your calm through stitch?