If I was to tell a pharmaceutical representative knitting has had a similar effect on my mental health as taking anti-depressants, they’d choke on their Panadol. I also imagine their eyes would roll further back in their head if I said that for the past six weeks, I’ve been knitting every night – a rather rare habit in the life of a 23-year-old extrovert – and that each time I cross my needles and twirl my yarn, I feel instantly relaxed.
Calm is not an emotion I set out to experience, rather something I discovered when simply trying to keep warm in the cool winter months. Yet, with each stitch I made in that first grey, fluffy (albeit holey) scarf, I felt a little weight lift off my shoulders.
I’m generally a yo-yo hobbier, flitting between dreaming of speaking Italian because I’ve read Eat Pray Love, to genuinely believing I will one day become a graphic designer, simply because I like collaging cards for friends’ birthdays. With knitting though, it was different. I began to schedule it into my day like meditation, so even when my eyes were forcing themselves closed, I’d find the motivation to fit in 10 minutes before bed.
It turns out my experience is a common one. Knitting is increasingly being used by mental health practitioners as a therapy to alleviate stress and anxiety disorders. Betsan Corkhill, 59, director of UK-based therapeutic knitting website Stitchlinks, says the calm often experienced through knitting is due to its rhythmic repetitive movement.
As an occupational therapist, Betsan has cured countless cases of panic attacks, anxiety disorders and physical pain through prescribing patterns over pills.
“We tend to resort to repetitive rhythmic movements when we’re quite stressed. We pace back and forth, we tap, people who are highly traumatised will rock, and it’s thought that they’re self-medicating.
“So, there’s very much something in the rhythm of knitting that facilitates this sense of calm, this meditative-like state,” she says.
Betsan published a paper about this with other researchers in 2013. The team conducted an online survey of 3545 knitters to establish whether the craft has a positive effect on mental health. After a knitting session, 81 per cent of respondents said they felt happier, and less than one per cent felt sad. Respondents also remarked they had higher levels of cognitive functioning.
There are two arms to the mental health benefits of knitting, says Betsan. One comes from the meditative-like state that enhances the release of serotonin (our body’s happy chemical) in the brain, and the other comes from the social interactions that can take place through knitting. It’s also portable, which makes it a handy tool to slip into your handbag and whip out in times of stress.
“It keeps people engaged in social activity, because once you have a mental health problem, it can become very easy to become isolated very quickly, and the more isolated you get, the more difficult it is to go out, which then becomes a vicious cycle,” she says.
For Lynnette Gerrand, 61, working in administration at a high school in Hamilton can be mentally exhausting. She is the ears for stressed-out teenagers to vent to, and constantly the helpful hand, whether it’s sorting out timetables or dishing out plasters. In the evenings, she likes to sit down with her knitting in front of the television, to clear her mind of the day’s work.
“I find it therapeutic. It keeps my hands busy while I’m watching TV, it’s a stress release. Especially if you’re doing something with a pattern – it takes you away from everything because you’re concentrating on that.
“Then of course, at the end you can feel good because you’ve made something,” she adds.
The reward of knitting is very important, says Betsan. “We have a circuit in our brains called ‘the reward system’, and this system fires off a boost of feel-good, pain-relieving, motivating chemicals when you’re successful at a task that requires a little bit of effort.”
An unfortunately common misconception with knitting is that you have to be a craft-obsessed female to be successful at it.
Paul Silvia, 40, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, quashes this stereotype, saying all people are inherently creative.
“We have big, hungry brains that are easily bored. We all find new ways to solve problems, make up new recipes, and so on, and these everyday moments of creativity are easily overlooked,” he says.
In 2014, Paul travelled to New Zealand on a University of Otago fellowship. A collaboration with New Zealand professor Tamlin Conner saw the pair produce a wealth of research studying everyday creativity. Young adults, 658 of them, were surveyed about their daily creative habits. The general consensus revealed people were more creative on emotionally positive days and less creative on emotionally negative ones.
Paul says the link between creativity and happiness is a virtuous cycle.
“When people feel cheery, it’s easier for them to come up with clever, creative ideas. And creative hobbies boost wellbeing for a lot of reasons.”
The research concludes that positive psychological functioning can be observed by looking at a person’s output of creative activity.
So how far away are we really from knitting breaking into mainstream mental health therapy? Betsan’s therapy is proof that knitting is not limited to a particular age group – the youngest person she’s helped was 12 and the eldest, 93. Men can also reap the benefits. Just last year, Rolleston Prison near Christchurch began a knitting programme for male prisoners. The men knit blankets for animals at SPCA Canterbury; it’s a therapeutic activity that fosters creativity and self-expression.
The main barrier, though, to therapeutic knitting gaining popularity is the stigma surrounding it. It’s often stereotyped as something only your granny does. In other areas of the world though, as in the UK, Betsan says the practice is catching on. Her knitting therapy is funded by the National Health Service, and she imagines it will slowly take off on an international level.
In the meantime, I have my weekends figured out; breakfast in bed followed by a spot of knitting has never sounded better. As a result of knitting a second scarf – this time, a lovely forest green – my mind feels freer, the anxious thoughts that once plagued it significantly diminished.
As a wise woman, writer Annie Dillard, once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
Words: India Hendrikse