4 Ways Creative Flow Improves Mental Health

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I don’t know about you, but every time I do something crafty I just feel great.

It’s like my brain is on fire.

All I can focus on is the stitch, or pattern, or brush stroke.

Apparently, I’m not the only one.

This phenomenon is called “flow”. It was first coined by psychologist Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi, who literally wrote the book on the subject. He claims that flow is the secret to happiness. It happens when you are so completely absorbed in an activity that nothing else matters. The repetitive tasks and focus help to calm the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of our “fight or flight” response.

This isn’t a new concept.

Since occupational therapy started gaining steam in the 19th century, craft courses have helped mental and physical issues alike. After the first world war, soldiers would weave baskets to help with PTSD and physical disabilities, effectively weaving their minds and neurons back together.

Since then, lots of studies have been done to see the connections between arts and crafts and thriving mental health.

Dr. Daisy Fancourt, a research fellow at University College London, conducted the study that I based this article on. Here is the full study, if you’re a nerd like me.

While the links aren’t for certain, at least not in a way that is easily measurable on paper, it’s hard to deny the benefits.

Read on to find out what they are – as if you need any more reason to do crafts.

Decreases Cortisol, Increases Dopamine

The first thing you notice when you start crafting is reduced anxiety and reduced feelings of depression.

This is because when we create things, our brain kicks out loads of happy chemicals and slows down the production of stress chemicals, giving us warm and fuzzy thoughts, which makes it easier to quiet down the negative self-talk and block out stress and anxiety.

This shift in brain chemicals also helps with our cognitive functioning and encourages cognitive flexibility.

Applied in more clinical contexts, crafts like knitting and quilting led to patients with eating disorders reporting a “reduction in anxious preoccupation with eating disorder thoughts” and in another study, it helped reduce workplace stress and compassion fatigue in oncology nurses.

“There’s promising evidence coming out to support what a lot of crafters have known anecdotally for quite some time. 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.” – Catherine Carey Levisay, a clinical neuropsychologist, via CNN.

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Build Up Self Esteem

According to Dr. Fancourt, another way that we use crafts is as a development tool.

In her study, 69 percent of respondents said that arts and crafts helped boost their self-esteem and they noticed an increase in feelings of inner strength.

When you work at something and practise it and get good at it, it produces a feeling called ‘self-efficacy’. Self-efficacy is important to how we approach the highs and lows in our lives.

By using your hands and your mind to conquer the project in front of you, you can feel more confident conquering other challenges or setbacks in your life.

In another study, participants said that their art skills improved, which boosted their confidence, but 71 percent felt an increase in their motivation and felt better about themselves.

That’s a win in my books.

Promotes Social Engagement

A study by the University of Glasgow followed a group of seniors and their quilting club.

The study found that the quilting was challenging and demanded a lot of concentration. This generated the ‘flow’ we talked about earlier. The experience also fostered a strong social network between the women, leading to the formation of strong friendships. The women said that the affirmation from others boosted their self-esteem and encouraged them to develop their skills more.

That and friendship between women is one of the most magical forces in the universe.

Similar effects were reported in studies of people with depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and others with chronic or long-term health issues. Engaging in arts and crafts was found to increase their self-esteem, thus increasing their willingness to engage with the wider world. They found that they felt better about themselves and were more confident in their ability to live positively with their condition.

Encourages Self Reflection

Last, but not least, participating in arts and crafts helps you get into the right headspace to reflect on problems and emotions.

Arts can help you experience less anxiety, better cognitive function, higher self-esteem and feelings of community. All of these effects contribute to the reflective headspace.

If you feel loved and safe and confident it can seem a lot less scary to face your demons.

According to a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology conducted at Otago University in New Zealand, participants who engaged in creative activities felt awesome the next day and, surprise, surprise, channelled that positive energy into even more creative things.

Participants were also encouraged to keep a diary of their experiences, which, along with the creative activities produced what psychologists call “flourishing”, a process of introspection, growth and purpose.

So, there you have it: the only four reasons you need to get crafting.

Pick up your pen, your paintbrush, or your knitting needles and start flourishing! It doesn’t matter if you’re “good at it” or not. If you’re not sure where to start you could take a class or attend a workshop. A quick Facebook search should turn up tons of cool stuff going on in your area. Even if you decide to stay home, YouTube and SkillShare are a great resource for inspiration and know-how.

Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy it, and soak up all the warm fuzzies you can get.

Let me know why you love crafting in the comments below.

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  1. Auntie K

    Hello Beautiful Jacquie! Auntie K here again.
    Crafting….hmmm…..not as active in this as I once was. It’s like balance and harmony and it can vary in so many ways, so many feelings, visuals, senses. My latest creation has been decorating my home in a way that I get a warm fuzzy feeling simply enjoying the energy of the space.
    Crafting requires focus and attention, in other words – Presence. When one is Present, creativity is allowed to flow. It’s the present moment – not remembering the past or being anxious about the future – Here and Now in the present moment. The mind chatter forgets about the past and future. So cool.

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