This is a post that I’ve been piecing together for a while with various bits of research. Since launching my series of Sewing for Self-Care posts, I’ve been growing more and more interested in the evidence behind the use of creative outlets to help maintain our mental health – and potentially recover from mental illness. Although there is clearly so much anecdotal evidence that creativity helps to manage mental health – my experience has certainly proved to me that there’s a connection – is that evidence really enough to suggest that we should all whip out our needle and thread in the name of good health?
Expanding my knowledge of sewing for self-care through the Sewing for Self-Care: Your Story posts has been an eye opener. I’ve heard from people who have used sewing to navigate all sorts of challenges – Tamsin’s story of using sewing to maintain her mental health following the birth of her daughter is just one example. How well do these experiences translate, however? Can sewing be helpful even if you aren’t suffering a mental health crisis? And what exactly is the connection between sewing and self-care? I’ve distilled some of the research in an attempt to answer these questions (and as the ever compulsive former PhD candidate, sources are listed at the end of the post)!
* As always, none of the below suggests that sewing should be seen as a cure for mental illness (and none of the studies mentioned posit that creativity can single-handedly fix a mental health crisis). My personal experience – and the evidence discussed below – is a testament to the power of creativity in maintaining mental health and practicing effective self-care. But I found my answer through a wide range of interventions and activities, including consultation with doctors and work with therapists. If you’re suffering, please be sure to reach out to local professionals who can help to put you on the path to recovery.*
Is There A Connection Between Creativity and Mental Wellbeing?
YES! (I’m really fortunate that this is the answer because otherwise it would make a LOT of what I’ve written totally redundant). There’s a good amount of evidence to suggest that creativity helps to maintain mental health. An article in Psychology Today cites a literature review by Stuckey and Noble, in which they looked through over 100 studies into the connection between engagement in the arts and mental health. Their overall conclusion from looking through these studies was that “creative expression has a powerful impact on health and well-being on various patient populations.”(1) The researchers also found that these studies showed a general consensus “that participation and/or engagement in the arts have a variety of outcomes including a decrease in depressive symptoms, an increase in positive emotions, reduction in stress responses, and, in some cases, even improvements in immune system functioning.”(2) So creativity could even help you fight off that irritating winter cold!
Outside of this, engaging in creative practices can also put you into a different psychological state. Many of us have experienced this before – a place where you are so engrossed in what you are doing that time passes without you even noticing. This is actually a widely acknowledged psychological phenomenon – labelled ‘flow’ by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (if I remember correctly from my years studying psychology, this is pronounced chick-sent-me-high – I wonder why I remember it?). Flow is essentially a state of hyperfocus and a place in which we are our optimal selves. We experience flow when our whole attention rests on the present moment, when we are fully engaged in and enjoying what we are doing. Creativity is one of the easiest ways to find yourself in a state of flow. And flow is integral to our happiness and wellbeing. The amazing Ted Talk by Csikszentmihalyi – linked in the citations at the bottom of the post – is a really great explanation of flow and why it is so fundamental to our mental health and a fulfilling experience of our own lives.(3) The same thoughts behind flow are the ones that encourage us to practice mindfulness – essentially the act of being fully present in the moment. It all very much connects.
“The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day and 95% of them are exactly the same, day in and day out.”(4) Creativity allows us to break free of these thought patterns and puts us into a different mental space. We turn to what we’re doing, rather than falling down the rabbit hole of spiralling thoughts in our minds. This is why creativity has such an incredible effect on our mental health. As Charles Benayon, writing for the Huffington Post, explains:
“Neuroscientists have been studying many forms of creativity and finding that activities like cooking, drawing, photography, art, music, cake decorating and even doing crossword puzzles are beneficial to your health. When we are being creative, our brains release dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant. Creativity usually takes concentration and it can lead to the feeling of a natural high.”(5)
Clearly, then, creativity is acknowledged to be fundamental to our mental wellbeing. Whether you are working to recover from mental illness (in which case creativity can be an excellent supplement to other interventions) or simply looking to keep your mental health on point, practicing an activity such as sewing is a great step!
Will Creativity Always Make Me Feel Better?
I think this is an important question to consider. Next week’s Sewing for Self-Care: Your Story post – written by the lovely Jenny from Jenny DIY – deals with the issue of timing. Because, as many of us know from experience, sewing will not always make you feel better. Sometimes – particularly when those pattern pieces just won’t fit together properly or your fabric can’t help puckering – it will make you feel a bit worse. Learning to respond to your needs in any given moment is something that I’ve already written about at length. But it’s a tough skill to learn (and yes, it really is a skill!). Especially when we know that sewing is such a great self-care practice so much of the time and we convince ourselves that it is always an appropriate response.
Interestingly, reaching that meditative state where creativity can have such a positive impact on your mental health is not a given. Returning to the idea of ‘flow’, Csikszentmihalyi actually identified nine different elements of flow that he saw recurrently when researching people’s engagement in flow activities(6):
- There are clear goals every step of the way
In sewing, this is a relative given. The process of following a pattern is incredibly goal-oriented which makes it a naturally suitable ‘flow’ activity.
- There is immediate feedback to one’s actions
This means that, at every step of the activity, you should understand how well you’re doing. With sewing, the feedback is often self-driven and avoiding falling into a place of self-critique can be a challenge (and self-criticism certainly isn’t conducive to ‘flow’). It’s important to be able to acknowledge how well you’re doing, without being hard on yourself if things aren’t going perfectly.
- There is a balance between challenges and skills
You need to make sure that what you’re doing isn’t too easy or too hard. To achieve flow, you want to be challenged just the right amount – basically, what you’re doing should correspond to your skill level. If you’re sewing, this is pretty simple to assess. Make sure that you’re looking at pattern reviews and details before committing!
- Action and awareness are merged
Be in the moment, fully present. This can take a bit of effort at first – don’t fall down that rabbit hole of thoughts and, instead, keep returning to what you’re doing (however, determinedly your mind is trying to pull you away with thoughts about the past or future).
- Distractions are excluded from consciousness
Basically as above. Focus on the activity at hand and don’t let yourself get carried away by distractions.
- There is no worry of failure
This is definitely one that I struggle with. ‘Flow’ means that you should be so absorbed in what you’re doing that you’re not engaged with the idea of failure. Since ‘flow’ requires that we know what steps we need to take in our activity, we should be fully immersed in carrying these out. If you’re naturally self-critical, it can be hard to disengage from constant negative assessments of your progress. But, if you’re fully in the present moment and the activity at hand, failure shouldn’t be on your radar.
- Self-consciousness disappears
This relates to the above. It’s basically about putting your ego to the side. If, like me, you’ve taken your creative outlet to the internet, it can be hard to let that self-consciousness go. Many of us are engaged in comparison with others and fear that what we’re making might not get the right kind of response. These thoughts can carry away from the internet and into the activity. Thoughts like ‘What if this goes wrong, when I’ve already told people it’s what I’m making?’ or ‘If the sizing isn’t right, I’m going to look like a sack of potatoes!’ start to become a problem. Returning to ‘flow’ as your priority, the ego gets put to the side. It’s about letting go of your self-image and self-consciousness to be a part of the process.
- The sense of time becomes distorted
I mentioned this above. When in a state of true ‘flow’, your sense of time will disappear and you’ll find yourself so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice time passing.
- The activity becomes ‘autotelic’ (an end in itself, done for its own sake)
This relates to most of the above. If you practice sewing, you should be doing it for the pure enjoyment of the process. Blogging, or taking your makes to social media, can augment this quite a bit. It starts to become a means to an end (recognition, followers etc.) rather than an end in itself. If this is the case, take a step back. Remember why you started sewing in the first place and try to return to that sense of beginner’s joy – where everything you do is interesting and a victory.
These elements of ‘flow’ can definitely make it feel as though such a state of immersion is out of reach. But it truly isn’t. Remember that the positive effects of creativity are not tied to achieving a meditative state. Just the act of creating and getting yourself off the couch to do something productive can be sufficient. It’ll still give you that dopamine boost! But if you want to truly experience everything that creativity has to offer you, it’s a good idea to cultivate some of the elements listed above. A lot of these will just happen naturally when you find something that you love to do and are in the right mental headspace. Some of it might take a bit of work – as, for example, trying to reduce incidents of self-criticism and remain present with the activity. You might find that you achieve this state for just five minutes (and not even notice that you’ve been in it), or it might go on for hours. Although feeling good isn’t a given when it comes to investing time in creative activities, there is so much that we can do towards improving the consistent and long-term impact that creativity can have on our lives.
So Is Creativity For Me?
Creativity – as well as the positive effects that it brings with it – is absolutely for everybody. I spent most of my childhood feeling like the least creative person on the planet. I invested all of my time in my academics and always told myself that creativity was for someone else. I did poorly at art, played the piano mechanically, and basically spent no time at all investing in anything truly creative. It wasn’t until I started sewing that I realised I’d been carrying so much creative potential. Creativity isn’t an exclusive practice. We all have, in our minds, an idea of someone truly ‘creative’. They’re probably wearing an artist’s smock, glasses, and a beret. But creativity isn’t pre-packaged and it doesn’t come with a list of admission criteria. Find something that you love to do and you will reap the benefits. Divorce yourself from thoughts of judgement from others and stop believing that you have to come into an activity already being totally knowledgeable. I’ve been sewing for two and a half years and I still do more learning than feeling proficient. That’s ok though – learning is genuinely 75% of the fun. You just have to embrace it.
Scientists, doctors, therapists, and those of us with personal experience all point to creativity as a stellar way to help manage your mental health. It is not a panacea – you won’t find that your depression lifts forever the minute you sit down with some knitting needles. But creativity will help to alleviate internal conflict and teach you to cultivate a outlook that will assist you in making lasting change. You just have to give it a chance to work its magic.
(1) Cathy Malchiodi, ‘Creativity as a Wellness Practice’, Psychology Today (31 December 2015). Link
(2) Same as above
(3) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Flow, the secret to happiness’, TED (February 2004). Link
(4) Charles Benayon, ‘How Creativity Improves Mental Health and Wellness’, Huffington Post (5 July 2017). Link
(5) Same as above
(6) Dr Steve Wright, ‘”In the zone”: enjoyment, creativity, and the nine elements of “flow”‘, Meaning and Happiness (5 September 2008). Link