Crafting and Health- Benefits for Mind, Body and Spirit.
(Note: this article originally appeared in the Craft Industry Today magazine, published by the Association for Creative Industries, formerly the Craft and Hobby Association.)
If you ask any artist or crafter, you will hear a variety of comments about how art-making or crafting makes them feel:
“I get in the zone.”
“All my troubles melt away.”
“I feel so much better when I’m creative.”
So anecdotally, even instinctively, we know that the process of creating- whether it’s fine art or crafting- provides certain health benefits, whether they be physiological, emotional, cognitive, or even social. But is crafting therapeutic? Before we delve into the benefits of making/crafting, it would benefit us to talk about some words that are blithely thrown about, such as “Art Therapy” or “Craft Therapy”.
Anything you can do to express yourself is a form of art. -Emily Rios
ART VERSUS CRAFT VERSUS ART /CRAFT THERAPY
If you look on the cover of many Adult Coloring books, you will find the term ‘Art Therapy’ right there in bold letters. As a former Board Certified Music Therapist (and an Art Therapy major for a time) it’s important that we unpack those terms and get on the same page.
So, for the sake of clarity, let’s start with the word “therapeutic.”
- of or relating to the healing of disease. “diagnostic and therapeutic facilities”
synonyms: healing, curative, remedial, medicinal, restorative, salubrious, health-giving, tonic, reparative, corrective, beneficial, good, salutary
“the therapeutic effects of acupuncture”
In a nutshell, if something is therapeutic it’s healing. And certainly arts and crafts are therapeutic.
But are they art therapy? Let’s see.
noun 1. a type of psychotherapy that encourages the expression of emotions through artistic activities such as painting, drawing, or sculpture; psychotherapy based on the belief that the creative process involved in the making of art is healing and life-enhancing.
Furthermore, from the American Association for Art Therapy:
What is art therapy?
Art therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
The critical difference here is that Art Therapy is employed by trained professionals based on psychotherapy.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Well, as a craft and hobby profession, we want to embrace all of the benefits of therapeutic arts and crafts, while respecting the boundaries of a credentialed profession. The good news is that the Art Therapists do a good deal of scholarly research about the benefits of art making (crafting, too) and we can draw from those studies to support our instincts that being involved in a creative pastime is innately good for us.
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”- Pablo Picasso
As a former therapist/clinician, I used to assess the needs of potential patients using this basic “CAMES” model- Communication skills, Academic needs, Motor skills, Emotional (Psychological) health, and Social Skills. Going back to this model, we can understand how crafting fits into those areas and can provide therapeutic benefits!
COMMUNICATION (expressive non-verbal)
Art and crafting by their nature are often non-verbal- however, the need for non-verbal communication is often imperative! Think about how important it is to preserve family memories with photos, ephemera, and even the written word. When we hold those scrapbooks in our hands, we are telling our “story” for generations to come. By our choices of materials and design, we are also communicating our own likes and preferences and our progeny will get a glimpse into the maker’s personality.
Similarly, those who engage in fine art, quilting, mixed media, etc, often feel that their work “speaks” for them- they can express through their handiwork what words cannot convey. This may be even more so for folks who have communication difficulties- the feeling of “normalization”- feeling included and whole even in the face of disability- can be incredibly meaningful.
And when we grieve, often no words come. It is in these situations that getting “out of one’s head and into one’s hands” can be the most meaningful form of communication- again, letting the art/craft speak where words fail.
ACADEMIC SKILLS (new learning)
One of the things that impresses me most with crafters is our thirst for knowledge. So many of us are what I jokingly call “serial crafters”- we keep picking up new media, skills, techniques, and supplies! All of this implies constant learning- and studies have show that learning challenging skills like photography or quilting actually tap into working memory and higher-level cognitive processes.
This snippet Psychological Science quotes research done by Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas:
“Older adults are often encouraged to stay active and engaged to keep their minds sharp, that they have to “use it or lose it.” But new research indicates that only certain activities — learning a mentally demanding skill like photography, for instance — are likely to improve cognitive functioning…..Some participants were assigned to learn a new skill — digital photography, quilting, or both — which required active engagement and tapped working memory, long-term memory and other high-level cognitive processes.” (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/)
Keeping cognitively engaged and learning new tasks can mean quality aging and years of additional independence- so keep learning those new crafting skills!
MOTOR SKILLS/ PHYSICAL HEALTH
When you learn a new craft, often you are training your brain and your hands to work more closely together. Things like eye-hand coordination are imperative when learning to sew, paint, or draw. For young learners, this eye-hand coordination can pave the way to more delicate and finely-tuned coordination which can be applied to playing instruments, hand writing, and more.
For adult and mature crafters, our eyes and hands often start to fail us- but the physical benefits of crafting, such as continued joint fluidity, lowered blood pressure, and the “feeling” of creating- can compensate for the frustrations of stiff fingers or diminished vision.
Just today I received this comment on my website from a reader:
“I wanted to tell you the health benefits that crafting has had for me aside from the mental health. It is one of the best pain management tools I have in my arsenal. It helps me to regulate my blood pressure, also.”
And as Dr. Peter DeOreo used to say in our treatment team meetings, “Patients who FEEL better ARE better”…. and for many crafters, this is an absolute truth. The connection of feeling well absolutely translates into actual physiological benefits.
The area of emotional/psychological health in relationship to crafters is almost unchallenged- I hear over and how calm and relaxed crafters feel- and the meme “Crafting is My Therapy” or “Crafting Is Cheaper Than Therapy!” is almost ubiquitous. But did you know that repetitive crafts, such as knitting and needlework, really DO create similar responses in the brain as meditation or yoga?
“Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind/body medicine and author of “The Relaxation Response,” says that the repetitive action of needlework can induce a relaxed state like that associated with meditation and yoga…..But unlike meditation, craft activities result in tangible and often useful products that can enhance self-esteem. ” (New York Times.)
The feeling of creating a legacy, something real from an abstract thought, or completing a difficult task can all release endorphins, increase self-esteem, and make us feel like our lives are productive and whole.
I often joke that crafters are my “tribe.” When I meet a crafter of any kind we immediately jump to “show and tell!” Crafters are usually very sharing, open teachers, happy to impart tips and tricks, techniques we’ve mastered, and we love to share our passion for crafting with everyone we meet.
To this end, crafting gives us a social network such as cropping groups, knitting circles, quilting guilds, art guilds, polymer clay retreats, online groups.. well, the list goes on and on. And don’t forget many crafters also join altruistic groups to donate finished goods for hospitals, the Red Cross, and countless local organizations.
This sense of community and social good that comes from these kinds of groups can be essential for a sense of purpose and self-esteem. And at least one study shows that having a sense of purpose can actually extend your lifespan.
From a study by Patrick Hill and Nicolas Turiano at Carlton University in Canada:
“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose,” says Hill. “So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”
In the study, greater purpose in life consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged, and older participants across the follow-up period.
From my perspective, this is a ringing endorsement for crafts and hobbies of all kinds- you cannot deny the cognitive, emotional, social, and physiological benefits to life-long crafting and making. And while it’s not Art or Craft Therapy, crafting, hobbies, and art-making are irrefutably therapeutic!
We can glean at least three important points from examining the health benefits of crafting:
- Developing crafting skills have life-long benefits for mind, body, an spirit, and those benefits are substantial and substantiated.
- While crafting is therapeutic, it is wise to seek an Art Therapist or Creative Arts Therapist for specific treatment plans.
- The more we support our diverse crafting population, the healthier we are as an industry AND a society.
Lastly, I also issue a call-to-action to ALL of us in the crafting industry to keep sharing our knowledge with the younger generation as well as making adaptive crafting supplies (such as built-up handles for crochet hooks, Ott Lights, and ergonomic tools) to include crafters with special needs and physical challenges and limitations. That will benefit our industry AND our bottom lines.
“Art is not a thing, it is a way.” ~Elbert Hubbard
Jenny Barnett Rohrs is a former Board Certified Music Therapist and is the owner/founder of CraftTestDummies.com She is a digital media/content specialist and creates content for many well-known brands as well as the current host of the PBS show “Han ds On Crafts for Kids.” When not crafting, she enjoys performing in community music theater, being and AFS host mom, traveling with husband Jeff and encouraging a love of the arts in her kids.
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