Using Your Hands to Soothe the Brain: Part 1

Women have innately basked their brains in feel good juices since time immemorial to get through tight economic and emotional times. Though dovetailed as woman’s work and not really discussed, for centuries women have enjoyed the calming properties of knitting, sewing, embroidering or even just rhythmically folding or ironing clothes.

When I came across this blog entry from sustainable designer and writer Natalie Chanin, it not only piqued my perception of the positive effects of “women’s work,” but it brought to light a real aspect of how using our hands to do meaningful tasks can benefit our overall health and well being.

Chanin cites neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, author of Lifting Depression:

“Lambert shows how when you knit a sweater or plant a garden, when you prepare a meal or simply repair a lamp, you are bathing your brain in feel-good chemicals and creating a kind of mental vitamin. Our grandparents and great grandparents, who had to work hard for basic resources, developed more resilience against depression; even those who suffered great hardships had much lower rates of this mood disorder. But with today’s overly-mechanized lifestyle we have forgotten that our brains crave the well-being that comes from meaningful effort.”

I asked Chanin myself, with all the women working for her, has she ever heard a remark about how working with their hands helped get them through hardships or that their disposition changed the moment they picked up needle and thread?

“We have had several stitchers remark that they just don’t ‘feel good’ when they don’t have a project to work on. I remarked in Alabama Stitch Book that I sometimes use sewing when I have a difficult decision to make or when I need to brainstorm and find ideas,” says Chanin.

So does the physical act of using your hands to “make,” increase some sort of chemical reaction that basks your brain in feel good, all-natural cocktails that can enhance your sense of well being?

I caught up with a few reliable sources to see what they thought about it.

Abigail Doan, Ecco Eco Founder and Textile Artist

I have always linked crafting with one’s hands to agricultural activities. Having grown up on a small family farm, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the soil, build fences, spin wool, and learn a variety of fiber-crafting skills. My mother was a self-taught hand spinner, and there is no doubt that the activities that we performed as a hands-on household curbed depression and day-to-day boredom.

I believe that people are currently drawn to these activities as they allow one to feel environmentally grounded and connected to a place, despite all of the uncertainty that presently surrounds us. Understanding the start-to-finish process of any craft-based activity mirrors life cycles and the rhythms of nature. For urban dwellers specifically, this is a great way to stave off the depression that comes from prolonged anxiety and a lack of centeredness. Keeping one’s hands moving also mimics activities like plowing, raking, weeding, or milking. We can lose ourselves in the patterns and textures created, and this for me is extremely therapeutic and restorative. It creates a one-to-one relationship that makes everything else simply fade away. It’s a healthy sort of addiction that replaces other forms of disease.

Jill Danyelle, Occupational Therapist and Founder of FiftyRX3

We are typically more motivated to engage in an activity that has some meaning, enjoyment, or purpose.

As a therapist, I work with children and tend to accomplish a lot under the guise of play, but I am also responsible for handwriting, which is often a dreaded task for my clients. I find the kids are most motivated to write if they can also draw and color pictures and tell a story. This year, I have had two boys collaborate on writing a story, which has motivated them to practice writing for the last two months, as they were excited to add a new phase to the story every session. We just ended it – although they keep trying to add more and more details – and now they are finishing all of the illustrations. They have a real sense of pride about the work, which I am going to publish in book form so they can share it with friends and family.

On the other end of the age spectrum, years ago I worked in a geriatric rehab facility every other Saturday. The clients were not motivated to do rote exercise, so I had to disguise it in activities. I would take all the neatly folded towels that were delivered from laundry and dump them in a pile on the table. Then I’d get two or three clients around the table and ask them to stand up and help me fold the towels. In the process they would start making small talk, so they were socializing, working on standing balance, bilateral coordination, upper extremity strengthening, etc.

In one of my internships with an Adult Mental Health Day Treatment program, I ran several groups including a kind of “talk therapy” group and a crafts group. Interestingly, nobody said too much in the “talk” group, but when they were busy crafting I think they felt less pressured and all sorts of things would come out.

Image: Mr T in DC

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.