Fibromyalgia and the ‘crafty’ person: knittin’ , hookin’ and stitchin’ as therapy

 

“As I get older, I just prefer to knit”, Tracy Ullman

In the Canadian Globe and Mail , Thursday, February 18, 2016, L5, featuring an article by Jane Brody, we read about the benefits of knitting as therapy. In fact, large studies have been done with thousands of knitters extolling this activity and other handcrafts. It is said to ease stress, that it helps with anxiety and depression and even chronic pain. Life coaches, occupational therapists and psychologists are introducing their clients to the joys of taking up the needles.

Betsan Corkhill, a wellness coach in Bath, England calls it therapeutic knitting. Her website Stitchlinks is a wonderful forum for those of us with fibromyalgia interested in pain management and all the other challenges we face on a daily basis.

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Tara Jon Manning depicts knitting as mindful . She even has mindful knitting retreats! It is a contemplative, productive, peaceful and joyful experience for many.

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In the article by Jane Brody it is mentioned that: “Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in mind-body medicine and author of The Relaxation Response, says that the repetitive action of needle-work can induce a relaxed state similar to that associated with meditation and yoga”. Furthermore she points out that “knitting and crocheting can lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce  harmful blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol”. It would seem that crafting in general, including painting, drawing, colouring and any other activity that involves new- to- you, creative, repetitive actions has captured the attention of neuroscientists interested in chronic pain (I have written about this elsewhere on several blogs). It involves creating different neural pathways than the ones we are focussed on with our chronic anxiety and catastrophic thinking. It is said to help change the brain.

We have long seen the ‘handi-work’ of many older women (mostly women, but certainly not exclusively) who continue to crochet, sew, hook, knit well in their very late ages. They will say that it relaxes them and often gives them a sense of belonging to a particular group with a common interest. Here are some crafting examples from elderly women in my province of Nova Scotia:

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My past history with needles

In my very young years in school in Montreal as a highly sensitive child I suffered greatly at the hands of the strict Catholic nuns and in my view, along with an anxious mother, the scene was set for the beginnings of a chronically hyper-aroused nervous system that later developed into (and is) fibromyalgia. Yet, simultaneously we had classes in knitting and spent many hours colouring. The contradiction still amazes me. Fear was instilled in us while strategies were developed to relax us!

For many years when I was in my 20s I knitted those large Mary Maxim sweaters for family members. Then I stopped knitting altogether. Yesterday I found some forgotten knitting needles and looked at th yarn but I felt too overwhelmed to follow a pattern. I decided I would begin again with something very simple that did not require much thought. Since I have been pushing the contemplative practice of meditation over and over again for many years it is up to me to find other places of meditation (well, I did do other craft things in an effort to change my brain but more on that later). Here it is my attempt to get back into the knittin’ mode. Laugh not!image1 (8)

Who were and are some famous knitters: Meryl Strepp, David Arquette, Marilyn Munro, George Lucas are all known to be knitters and it is even said that Albert Einstein was as well. Apparently even the rich and famous have found comfort in the craft that is thought by many to be the role only of a ‘granny’. The OT Victoria Schindler says that knitting activates the parasympathetic nervous system which quiets the amygdala, the fight or flight response that those of us with chronic anxiety struggle with on a daily basis. I have mentioned before how I talk to my amygdala often during the day, so why not do this in a period of meditative activity? The needles and I have begun to reconnect. But, it is about pacing as I have already experienced tingling in my arms and hands after five minutes! If I hurry through it is not mindful and I already know that hurrying is my downfall; it brings about anxiety.

FLOW

The psychologist Mihaly Csikazentmihalyi spoke of ‘flow’ on a TED talk in 2004. He describes this as happiness in which a person is completely absorbed and “doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his[sic] body feels”. There is research evidence that shows that dopamine (the reward center in the brain which releases it as a neurotransmitter) is present when having pleasure. The creativity, patience, pacing, pride and focussed attention on the task can be very rewarding when one enters a state of ‘flow’. It is a mindful practice. But, what IF patience and pacing are not part of the process?

MY QUILTING DAYS

I wanted to develop a creative activity that was new to me, repetitive, creative and so, about 10 years ago I decided to take up quilting. I did not even own a sewing machine. I would make a lovely quilt cover by hand and buying the fabric became a hobby I eagerly anticipated. I hardly remembered even being in a fabric shop before. Ten years later I am not making quilts any longer after about 20+ quilts given to family and some kept for my own home. I actually became quite frantic about organizing, buying, washing the fabric, hand sewing, bending over the table until I would collapse with exhaustion. I would have difficulty with pacing, my arms would ache, my back was always on fire. I would try to remind myself to breathe, relax, enjoy the moment, but it was a struggle. I learned more about myself and the inability to be at peace. I am always in a constant state of hurriedness, anxiety and tension (the personality of those of us with fibromyalgia). My quilting days are over. It was something that I could not teach myself to relax into and fortunately there are no family members who needed another quilt! Now the newly bought sewing machine of 5 years ago sits alone on a shelf.image1 (11)

So, now what does a person like me do to relax into mindfulness? I have already written about the new hobby of colouring. Did the same thing happen?

Colouring

YES! I could not wait until I finished a new page, then a new book. While I do enjoy the process it isn’t the same feeling I had when I created a quilt. It is somehow less creative and at first I hurried along for hours on end. Now, I am much easier about it. While I don’t get the same ‘high’ as making a quilt, nonetheless it is relaxing if I don’t stay at it too long. I also do not experience anxiety that I might make a mistake and NO TINGLING OF HANDS OR ARMS!

image1 (10)(Image from the book of Dream Mandalas by Wendy Piersall whose coloring books I enjoy immensely)

The moral of this story is that not all of us are crafters. I suspect that the people who knit, crochet, hook, sew are those ‘crafty’ ones who are already calm and peaceful to begin with (?), or who are innately talented and creative! I am not like those people so must content myself with pacing in a leisurely way with a few knitting minutes here and there (I think I will go from making a dishcloth to knitting a scarf :-)) and colouring a wee bit while focussing on my breathing and the sheer pleasure of working with colours.

2 comments

  1. Betsan Corkhill says:

    Hi Barbara
    Thank you so much for featuring my book and the Stitchlinks website.

    I work a lot with people who have fibromyalgia. I would define Therapeutic Knitting as a combination of knitting and knowledge – knowledge about the whole-person nature of wellbeing and of how to enhance the benefits of knitting to deliberately improve wellbeing.

    As for ‘tingly hands’, an important part of this knowledge is to choose the right materials (usually circular, polished birch needles) and yarn (a little give, DK, soft texture, a colour you enjoy). We then pace the activity – like you many can only knit a few stitches at first, so they learn to stop and knit a few more later. Gradually they can increase the amount of knitting whilst improving the their ‘stamina’ and ‘tolerance’ of fine hand movements.

    You can also learn to choose your projects according to what type of mind-state you’d like to go into so you are learning to use knitting as a tool, for example, to deliberately raise mood, relax, meditate, as a form of distraction etc. It’s portability can enable you to access these states wherever you are whenever you need. That begins to put you back in control.

    Hope this helps.
    Thank you again – it’s good to meet you.

    Best wishes
    Betsan

  2. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thank you so much Betsan: These tips and the good advice are very helpful. I have finished the dishcloth and now on to bigger and better things, haha! It had been quite awhile since I had picked up needles. For me nowadays I would want to knit as a meditative practice and am thrilled to know that there are more activities that can enhance my sense of control that I also enjoy. I learn more about myself every day and it certainly is an on going journey. Happy knitting!
    Regards,
    Barbara

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