As a child, I lived in the countryside. We were a 30 minute drive from my school and friendship group. I had 2 brothers and a sister, but, though we played well together sometimes, we all had very different tastes and personalities. I was more academic - geeky even. My sister liked shopping and socialising. My brothers were both more physical, and had minds that revelled in engineering and logic. In comparison, I was physically and socially awkward, and much happier in cerebral pursuits, arts and creativity. The most extroverted part of me was satisfied by singing, dancing and performing - but making and maintaining proper social connections was never going to be my strong point. I found a lot of comfort in crafting - an activity that could be done in isolation or in company.
My mum was intent upon nurturing us properly. Her life’s work was to support each of our particular interests, and to spend quality time with us as children. Some of my favourite childhood memories are of us using the vegetable scraps to make pictures, or hand-making Christmas decorations, re-using sweet wrappers from the previous year! My bedroom drawers were full to the brim with crafting kits.
Skip to the present day, and I need to be making things on a regular basis to feel well!
That’s the big 'WHY' for me. Creating is a pillar of my mental wellness, and I’m not alone.
Crafts have been used to provide relaxation and therapy to soldiers returning from war since the late 19th Century.
Research carried out with patients suffering Anorexia Nervosa resulted in 74% of participants reporting being “distracted” or “distanced” from negative emotions and thoughts.
Other studies have shown links between crafting and cognitive skills in stroke and dementia patients - so the benefit is not just emotional. Crafting improves brain function!
Finding Your FLOW
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was the first to coin the idea of ‘FLOW’ - being so completely absorbed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. This state is made up of several parts - and creating art, or crafting fulfils many of them in one fell swoop. Having a ‘challenge-skill balance’ can be said of any art. In taking up a craft, we challenge ourselves to make something, and we acquire, apply and improve a skill - be it carving, drawing, stitching or something else. Having ‘clarity of goals’ is achieved simply by deciding what it is we want to make, and we can attain 'immediate and unambiguous feedback' by gifting our creations to others, showing them in competition or communities (if we so wish) or simply judging for ourselves how close we have come to the desired outcome.
So far I’ve been strictly adhering to the factors that Csikszentmihalyi described - but at this point I’m going to insert a little of my own pop-psych theory. There are additional benefits to finding your flow in arts and crafts.
No-one ever has to see the results!
No-one will die if it turns out a bit wonky (or if you don’t finish at all).
You DON’T have to make it exactly like in to book! The faults make your art uniquely yours.
For those of us with anxiety or low-self-esteem - this is an important safety net that allows us wiggle free from the ‘freeze’ that mental health conditions can cause. We need to participate in activities that don't carry the threat of judgment and consequence. Such activities help us to find our own faltering voice or style, without worrying about being measured against unattainable standards (even if we are the only one placing those standards)!
Filtering the Outside World
Crafting and artistic creation also aids what Csikszentmihalyi called ‘autotelic experience’. This is when we perform actions for their intrinsic value, and for our own satisfaction, rather than for the sake of chasing affirmation from external sources. In an age when many of us are prone to social media ‘compare and despair’ - we need to do more activities FOR OUR OWN SATISFACTION, and not just for show. When a project holds our attention, it leaves no room for worries about finances, family, politics, guilt and the hundred other unwelcome thoughts that fill our minds at other times.
I nearly named this section Forgetting the outside world, but I think it can be more useful to think of it as Filtering - because as we begin to create, we may well draw inspiration from the outside world. Many people use their art to process even the problematic parts of their world (Art Therapy). Taking a creative approach to our everyday experiences, looking for inspiration, can help us to be more present and mindful - taking more joy in simple sensations. We seek out and interpret patterns, textures and other characteristics to feed our creative ideas. In doing so, we filter out (or re-frame) the unhelpful or stressful parts of our experience.
This can be a very useful skill to develop, taking more control over our outlook - choosing what to give space to in our thoughts. Anyone who has suffered from anxiety or depression knows how triggering it can be to feel a lack of control in life. Approaching life from a creative point of view lets us practice control over the one thing we ALWAYS have a choice in - our outlook.
Creating Over Consuming.
An extension of that break from the outside world is that we move away from being a consumer, and towards being a creator. Many western capitalist institutions depend heavily on a large part of the population performing a consumer role. From watching TV, to fashion, to fast-food - businesses NEED customers. That’s all well and good, but when it gets out of balance, and all we do is consume, we can be left feeling ineffectual. Instant gratification without challenge can result in a lack of meaning in life. Crafting provides the opportunity to accomplish and achieve, which is a super-boost for self-esteem.
It is also an opportunity to up-cycle, repair and repurpose. When we make things for ourselves, we take a step back from mass-produced products and the environmental damage associated with them. It might not be all the time - but it’s a start! You are moving into a mindset that prioritises the value of quality and workmanship over disposable convenience. With this new mindset, there's a good chance that you are more likely to patronise ethical and independent businesses, which will in turn benefit your community the environment as a whole.
While you are creating instead of consuming - you get a bonus break from screens of all sizes! With the exception of digital arts (which I wouldn’t recommend an hour before bed), you can give your eyes and brain a rest from the unwanted effects of blue light and over-stimulation. Plus, we all know that having a little social media detox can be a very good thing for our emotional health.
Even as a consumer, when you choose to create, you trigger your mind to begin consuming more creative input and stimulus. People who choose to create tend to be more open to discovering in all areas of life - trying new things outside of their comfort zone. When you begin to seek inspiration, you open your mind to the exchange of ideas and this can only enrich you as a person.
Pick Your Peers.
Arts and Crafts are the perfect pastimes for social scalability. If you need a sense of community (and it’s thought that to lesser or greater extent, all humans have a need for it), you can craft with company. From couples, to small groups, to worldwide online communities, you can find support from fellow crafters, and always have a shared interest to connect over.
At the other end of the scale, introverts can create alone, which can be a real comfort if you have social anxieties, or if the black dog is making it hard to deal with other humans for a period. Even if you can't get out of bed (I know how depression can be!), you can create from under the duvet - drawing, sewing, writing - all sorts. It can be really comforting to feel you've achieved something, anything, when you're depressed (and yes, you can count getting up and getting a shower as an achievement!). If all you want to do is paint your nails, there is the opportunity for creativity and achievement.
Getting used to Failure - Adapting to the Unexpected.
This is a personal point of mine - but I know that there are people out there that have issues with the same thing. FEAR OF FAILURE PARALYSES ME . It’s been a stumbling block in several of my careers and has lead a bad habit of quitting before I really make a go of something - too scared to try in case I fail. I’m still working on changing this behaviour, but I do know that creating in ways NOT related to my career helps me to view failure as part of a learning process, or even as the happy accident that uncovers an unexpected, desirable outcome. When we make, we learn by doing, and we meet challenges on the way - just like life. Arts and Crafts can be seen as practice for life in a safe microcosm. Facing the unexpected in our art, working around it, solving the problem, or simply riding it out - we equip ourselves to apply the same behaviours to bigger challenges and surprises in life.
…and you thought you were just doodling!
I think I’ve made a pretty good argument for focusing on MAKING in this blog, here.
Keep checking back for more posts on creative thinking, introductions to specific crafts and craft reviews - and please feel free to comment below about what YOU’D like to see in the MAKE section of Make Tracks Travel!