Knitting Soothes Your Psyche
Needlecraft: More than meets the eye
by Betsy Lynch
Mental health therapist Emily Straw has been knitting and crocheting for nearly two decades. “I’m a knitter with a capital ‘K’,” she says with a laugh. Straw is so devoted to the craft that she attends knitting events coast-to-coast and even spins her own yarn.
Yet knitting is more than a beloved hobby. As a specialist in trauma and addiction, Straw also believes knitting provides mental health benefits far beyond the simple satisfaction of completing a project.
“It creates a sense of mindfulness,” she explains. “A sensory activity like knitting allows a person to really focus on what they’re doing in the present moment. It gives the brain a rest from thinking about all the external stuff.”
The British Journal of Occupational Therapy reported the results of a survey of more than 3,500 knitters worldwide who said knitting reduced feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Knitters found the activity both soothing and meditative.
“It’s very grounding,” Straw agrees. When she’s feeling light-hearted and breezy, she might tackle something easy that doesn’t require her to focus. When she’s worried or upset, that’s when she picks up her most challenging project. In either case, the tactile experience is tied to the emotional rewards.
“I love thinking about the fibers that I’m using, the way the yarn looks and feels in my hands, the feel of the needles in my fingers—I love the entire process. And I enjoy having a drawer full of socks and sweaters.”
She also notes that knitting correlates in some ways to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The back-and-forth action strengthens neural pathways by alternately engaging both sides of the body. Some research suggests needlework might also slow cognitive decline.
And needlecraft provides opportunities to connect with others. Straw says taking lessons or participating in a knitting community can create a real sense of belonging. Many individuals with disabilities or differing mental function, such as those with autism, often find a special niche among knitters.
“Finding community is one of the most important aspects of caring for our mental health,” Straw says.
Having a common interest makes conversations and social interactions easier. My Sister Knits, a local yarn shop owned by sisters Julie Luckasen and Diana Keairnes, offers classes and hosts “knit night” on Tuesday evenings. Lambspun is another local hub for fiber arts. You can also find local meet-ups and virtual knitting communities online. Ravelry.com is one of the largest, Straw notes, while Instagram is a great place for crafters to showcase their projects.
In addiction therapy, Straw sees knitting as a potential tool. It’s a good replacement behavior that might help prevent relapse. Knitting activates the brain region connected to love and belonging, a region where addictive behaviors are often triggered by loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Instead of using a substance, picking up the knitting needles might help get a person re-centered. She says getting people together to knit is an even better strategy since social connections support recovery.
If you decide to start knitting, Straw cautions to be gentle with yourself. Approach it with a relaxed, uncritical mindset—and stick with it. Before long, you’ll have greater peace of mind and something soft and fuzzy to show for it.