(CNN) — Her brother’s sudden death in 2004 hit Sarah Huerta hard.
In the years that followed, Huerta couldn’t leave the house without suffering a panic attack. She hated getting in cars since her brother’s body was found in one. She couldn’t seem to hold down a job. Every time she stepped outside she felt disaster closing in.
Her physician diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme anxiety.
Her husband gave her knitting needles.
Huerta was skeptical at first. Knitting seemed silly — and difficult for hands she could never seem to keep still. But as she learned to knit and purl, hours melted away. She realized she was no longer focusing on the future, imagining catastrophic things happening to her loved ones.
“That’s when I seriously started crafting,” Huerta said.
Crafting can help those who suffer from anxiety, depression or chronic pain, experts say. It may also ease stress, increase happiness and protect the brain from damage caused by aging.
Little research has been done specifically on crafting, but neuroscientists are beginning to see how studies on cognitive activities such as doing crossword puzzles might also apply to someone who does complex quilting patterns. Others are drawing connections between the mental health benefits of meditation and the zen reached while painting or sculpting.
“There’s promising evidence coming out to support what a lot of crafters have known anecdotally for quite some time,” says Catherine Carey Levisay, a clinical neuropsychologist and wife of Craftsy.com CEO John Levisay. “And that’s that creating — whether it be through art, music, cooking, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography (or) cake decorating — is beneficial to us in a number of important ways.”
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Effects similar to meditation
Even today, years after Huerta first learned to knit, she finds she can lose herself for hours in a tricky pattern.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first described this phenomenon as flow: a few moments in time when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, is the secret to happiness — a statement he supports with decades of research.
“When we are involved in (creativity), we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life,” Csikszentmihalyi said during a TED talk in 2004. “You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.”
Our nervous system is only capable of processing a certain amount of information at a time, he explains. That’s why you can’t listen and understand two people who are talking to you at once. So when someone starts creating, his existence outside that activity becomes “temporarily suspended.”
“He doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can’t feel if he’s hungry or tired. His body disappears.”
The effects of flow are similar to those of meditation, says occupational therapist Victoria Schindler. Science has shown meditation can, among other things, reduce stress and fight inflammation.
Our bodies are in a constant state of stress because our brain can’t tell the difference between an upcoming meeting with the boss and an upcoming bear attack, Schindler says. The repetitive motions of knitting, for example, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which quiets that “fight or flight” response.
In a 2007 paper “The neurological basis of occupation,” Schindler and co-author Sharon Gutman argue that patients could learn to use activities such as drawing or painting to elicit flow, which would offer a nonpharmaceutical way to regulate strong emotions such as anger or prevent irrational thoughts.
“Flow could potentially help patients to dampen internal chaos,” they write.
A natural anti-depressant
The reward center in your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine when you do something pleasurable. Scientists believe dopamine was originally designed to make us repeat activities that would help the species survive, such as eating and having sex. Over time, we’ve evolved so that the brain can also release dopamine while we’re staining glass or decorating a cake.
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“Dopamine, in and of itself, is our natural anti-depressant,” Levisay says. “Any time we can find a nonmedicinal way to stimulate that reward center … the better off we’re going to be.”
There’s survey evidence to support crafting’s dopamine effect. In one study of more than 3,500 knitters, published in The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 81% of respondents with depression reported feeling happy after knitting. More than half reported feeling “very happy.”
And crafting’s reward goes far beyond creation. Seeing the finished product adorning your walls — or receiving praise from a loved one — can offer repeated hits of that feel-good chemical.
Crafting also improves our self-efficacy, Levisay says, or how we feel about performing particular tasks. Psychologists believe a strong sense of self-efficacy is key to how we approach new challenges and overcome disappointments in life. So realizing you can, in fact, crochet a sweater for your nephew can help you tackle the next big paper your teacher assigns.
Creative activities may protect against aging
More than 35 million people worldwide live with dementia today. By 2050, that number is expected to more than triple, and experts are racing to find ways to protect the brain from this debilitating condition.
Neuroscientists used to believe that the brain was a static organ, says Levisay, and that once it was fully developed in your 20s, all you could do was lose power. But research has shown more recently that our brains are flexible and can adapt to their environment, even in old age — a concept called neuroplasticity.
The evidence to support this concept is overwhelming. Studies have found intellectually stimulating activities, such as learning a new language, can help prevent cerebral atrophy and significantly delay dementia. And a recently published clinical trial shows cognitive training can improve reasoning skills and the brain’s processing speed for up to 10 years after said training has been completed.
“The natural next step is to study other activities — not just memory, cognitive tests,” Levisay says. “What about crafting activities? Something people do naturally because they’re enjoyable.”
Crafting is also unique, Levisay says, in its ability to involve many different areas of your brain. It can work your memory and attention span while involving your visuospatial processing, creative side and problem-solving abilities.
Scientists are beginning to study leisure activities’ impact on the brain. Playing games, reading books and crafting could reduce your chances of developing mild cognitive impairment by 30% to 50%, according to a 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry.
“The hypothesis is that the more stimulating your environment is … the more you’re increasing the complexity of the brain, the more you can afford to lose,” Levisay says. “You’re building a buffer.”