I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to get a little bit personal in this column. Since I began knitting about ten years ago, I’ve used the craft to address my anxiety. Specifically I have PTSD, and I’ve found that certain anxiety-combatting techniques, like mindfulness, don’t always work well for me when I’m feeling panicked: I’m already hyper vigilant during an anxiety episode due to the trauma part of PTSD. Being mindful often makes that hyper-awareness worse. I needed a means of calming my mind without feeding into my hypervigilance. I never set out to knit to ease my anxiety. It was just a super cool side effect I didn’t expect it to have.
Knitting puts me into a meditative state. Some of it is the rhythmic movement and clicking of the needles. I’ve noticed that my breathing evens out and slows as I fall into the rhythm of my knitting. Some if it is due to the fact that both my hands are occupied, which keeps me from fidgeting. A lot of it is because knitting focuses my mind on something and prevents the hamster from running so hard he falls off the wheel.
In short, knitting slows my brain down and calms me.
What I didn’t understand until I read Knit for Health and Wellness by Betsan Corkhill is that knitting is good for my chronic pain too. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in 2013, although I began experiencing symptoms as far back as 2007. Fibro is a chronic condition that isn’t widely understood yet. It causes widespread or localized pain, sometimes intensely, and fatigue during episodes called “flares.” When I am flaring up I feel a general body ache, sort of like when you have the flu, and I am hypersensitive to touch (allodynia). It feels a lot like I have a sunburn over my entire body. Everyone’s experience with fibro pain is different, by the way, so my experiences are not universal to everyone who has the condition.
So what does that have to do with knitting? Nothing, or so I thought. Since knitting is something I enjoy, I often found it distracted me from my pain (provided I wasn’t into too much pain to knit in the first place). It turns out the relationship between knitting and pain management is more profound.
Corkhill is a physiotherapist and developed a program of Therapeutic Knitting for some of her patients suffering from chronic pain. At first it was designed to help people who were isolated by chronic illness enter a group setting where they could socialize and also be creative. Corkhill noticed that the act of knitting itself seemed to have an impact on her patients’ pain.
Some of this has to do with spacial awareness:
As a physiotherapist specializing in neurological treatments, I was immediately interested in the nature of the movements [of knitting] and their potential impact on the brain. Physiotherapists have been using bilateral patterns of movement for the treatment of brain injury for years.
We tend to believe the information our brain gives us…but sometimes it comes to the wrong conclusions. Habitual behaviors or long-term illness can change your perception of the world–physically and psychologically. Those with long-term pain, for example, often have an altered perception of space. This can vary from limbs that feel a different shape or size to not being able to accurately gauge the space their body occupies. Similarly someone who is normally housebound can feel very unsafe in an open or crowded environment. The brain’s perception of reality isn’t necessarily accurate.
Okay, so what does that have to do with knitting, you ask?
Knitting involves a complex bilateral, coordinated pattern of movements. This will require a lot of integration in your brain to fine tune the movements to enable your hands to work together in a precise way, which means your brain will be working quite hard.
The fact that these movements cross the midline of the body is interesting too–cross midline movements take up even more brain capacity.
The midline of the body is a significant reference point for the brain. Research is at an early stage, but crossing the midline can affect your perception of pain in a limb for example. It’s not fully understood why.
Performing a bilateral, coordinated pattern of movement across the midline of the body that you’re also looking at is a complicated process–it uses up a lot of brain capacity leaving it with less capacity to pay attention to other issues. Add in some counting plus an intricate knitting pattern and you use even more. A large number of narratives collected from knitters describe knitting as highly effective in distracting the brain’s attention, and you can take advantage of this to take control of your life.
Okay, so knitting increases our spacial awareness, helps distract from pain and anxiety, and there’s some science that suggest crossing the midline of your body is beneficial. That’s cool!
But wait! There’s more!
Studies in animals have shown that repetitive movement enhances the release of serotonin. Serotonin raises mood, but also it also calms and is an analgesic. People often instinctively engage in repetitive, rhythmic movement when they are stressed or traumatized. They are intuitively self-soothing as they rock, pace or tap.
I had already associated the repetitive movements of knitting with being soothing, but I’d never thought it could potentially be releasing serotonin as well.
Knit for Health and Wellness offers suggestions for Therapeutic Knitting, including modifications for people who have pain in their arms and hands, positioning for people with back pain, and advice on having a “quiet” knitting practice for when you need to relax and self-soothe, as well as joining a knitting group for socialization.
I do modify my knitting to accommodate my fibro. I often rest my elbows on pillows that I tuck on either side of me, which takes pressure off my shoulders. I also use an analgesic gel on my hands when they get achey.
One thing that wasn’t discussed in the book very much is all of the sensory input that comes from knitting. I love working with really, really soft yarns in vibrant colors. The sensation of the yarn in my hands and the color playing out across what I’m making feels uplifting and joyful.
Right now I’ve got a lot of stress to manage, and I’m taking periodic breaks to work on a Peace of Wild Things Shawl. I love knitting shawls, although I find them tricky to wear.
My shawl is in the stage where it’s lumpy and hard to photograph, but here’s a shot of the very beginning. The yarn is Hedgehog Fibres Skinny Singles in the colorway Hold Your Tongue. I got the shawl pin at my local little yarn store.
Now that I know knitting has some benefit to managing pain as well as anxiety, I’m going to pay more attention to how knitting makes me feel physically. I would imagine the benefits from knitting would also translate to other crafts with repetitive motions.
Are you a knitter or crafter? What benefits do you get from your hobby?