How Crochet Helped After a Traumatic Brain Injury

The health benefits of crochet are far and wide!

Amish Springtime Granny Pillow
Amish Springtime Granny Pillow. Diane Stavros

Diane Stavros first learned to crochet as a child and then got more into it again recently thanks to online inspiration. After a very difficult divorce followed by a slew of life challenges, Diane found that crochet was healing in that it gave her moments of peace and hope in the midst of chaos. A few years ago she experienced a traumatic brain injury and she’s been using crochet as part of her occupational therapy ever since.

In this interview she shares her story about the health benefits of crochet.

How has crochet helped you?

I have had a traumatic brain injury, grief, anxiety, and difficulty with life transitions. Crochet has enabled me to focus, accomplish reachable goals, develop confidence, experience a meditative state, feel comfort, experience hope, and have a creative outlet for anxious energy.

Isn’t it amazing how crochet helps with so many things? When and how did you learn to crochet?

I learned when I was nine years old. A friend of my mother taught me the basics and some other friends and family members embellished on that. I stayed at a very basic level for many years. It was really all the “new” inspiration I saw on Ravelry that pushed me to go beyond the basics fairly recently.

When did you first realize that crochet could be healing for you?

I think I experienced a sense of accomplishment and the joy of creativity, which are both necessary to health, right away, but I’d say I really became aware of how healing it could be during the aftermath of my divorce.

I was overwhelmed by the upheaval, the shock of what I’d been through during the marriage, the financial ruin, suddenly being solely responsible for three children, losing my home, living in a new town, one of my children’s special needs becoming apparent, traumatic dealings with my ex, the legal system ­­- the list goes on – overall a pretty horrific “moment” in life.

I was in a nearly constant state of anxiety and found it difficult to know what to focus on.

Sitting down with a project, I would easily block everything else out for a little while and thoroughly lose myself in working stitches, the movement of my hands, seeing what I was making come into existence – it was a way to get centered and back in touch with the free and unburdened part of myself and a break I desperately needed. Little by little, that peace and focus engendered hope and even some fun and happiness in me, and that’s continued to grow and remained a constant in my life.

In 1997 I suffered a traumatic brain injury, and there’s a long list of all the ways in which the mental and physical actions of crocheting assist with recovering from that. Very briefly, it helps with focus, sequential thinking, planning, seeing patterns, restoring faith in one’s self, hand-eye coordination  – and I’m sure, probably many other brain benefits of which I’m not even aware.

Are some projects better than others for those benefits?

I have a lot of anxious energy at times, and that’s when I prescribed myself the fast, mindlessly repetitive projects. They don’t satisfy me for too long, though, so soon enough my mind needs a challenge.

I go back and forth between both ways and find that I need both for different things.

Can you give us a bit more detail about the effects of your brain injury and the ways crochet has helped?

One of the biggest problems is that I experience some significant impairment in sequential thinking; that is, (simply) the ability to organize thoughts in order of priority, or in a logical sequence. It may not appear to a casual onlooker (and I hope it doesn't) but my mind is doing a lot of "behind the scenes unscrambling" in order to get from point A to point B in executing various tasks. Moving through all of the steps of a crochet project is very therapeutic for this. Each step in a pattern can be focused on individually, while holding a partial vision of the next step. After a lot of repetition of the same, or similar, patterns, my mind can see and anticipate the whole pattern and the logical sequence of how it formed.

I remember when seeing patterns that way was more or less automatic (before my fall) and it's pretty frustrating to now be such a slow poke. However, it feels so good to go through each step of a project. It's like something is there to hold my hand (and for my hand to hold) and help get me all the way through the process mentally. It's like scratching an itch, very satisfying once the initial frustration has been tackled. Also it renews my hope that my brain can keep getting progressively better through this kind of practice, so it's very helpful emotionally.

Another effect of the injury is that now my thoughts frequently come in one of two modes: 1) extremely sluggish, wherein multitasking is out of the question, or 2) overflowing streams of unrelated pictures and words, which can cause "mental traffic jams" and make it very hard to focus on anything. Either way, crochet to the rescue! (Knitting, for me, requires a little more thought, so I don't generally knit unless my brain is calm and somewhat "organized.")

If my thoughts are slow, I can simply sit and pull loop through loop through loop, and usually this kind of "limbers up" or gently stimulates my thoughts; I guess it’s kind of like a warm-up for more vigorous exercise. This has been a way for me to ease into the challenges of an ordinary day countless times. If there are rushing streams of pictures and disjointed phrases, then I can either channel some of that energy into creating or just center and harness my thoughts by focusing on the project at hand. I literally approach crochet at these times like it's a prescription, usually needed to be taken daily.

Speaking and therefore, socializing, can be pretty difficult at times. Some mental stoppage frequently happens between thinking thoughts and speaking them, and/or many words rush to my mouth at once and can cause stammering. I have developed a certain amount of "social anxiety" around this problem. Crocheting in public or sharing the skill with other people has been very helpful for this, even if I have a really hard time getting my meaning across verbally; (I can always resort to just showing what I'm doing).

People are generally so interested and so happy to learn, that it encourages me to keep trying to communicate, instead of just keeping quiet, which would give my brain no practice in working through the difficulty. And again, it's a source of happiness to have something to offer others, which is a great antidote to how down and discouraged having a faulty brain can make you feel.

One more think I can think of: sometimes, in an almost seizure-like way, it can feel like my head and body are slightly out of sync with each other. It can feel a little dizzying and as if my body parts are being directed to move by remote control. When this happens one of the first things I want to do is grab a hook and some yarn, work with my hands and try to get my head and body back into sync with each other. Does it work, or does the weird thing just pass while I'm crocheting? I'm not sure, but in any event, crocheting is distracting and comforting, and I'm really grateful I can do it.

The losses in abilities have altered my sense of identity, how I see myself, and there have definitely been dark moments when I've felt that I'm no longer "worth" what I once was, or that I'm seen as dumb when I can't speak freely or think quickly. There has been a lot of discouragement to deal with. So I think my favorite "brain benefit" of crocheting is that it's "proven" to me that I can still do some things well, that I can make progress, and that I can create things that are useful and maybe even beautiful and have something to give to the world. The increased confidence has been so important in keeping me willing to continue the struggle to regain whatever abilities I can.

Where are you most likely to crochet?

Sitting in one corner of my couch, propped up with soft pillows and covered with an afghan. A highly nurturing set-up! I really do crochet nearly every single day, unless something prevents me (wrist pain, illness, schedule, children, knitting instead, etc.). But I usually go to some pretty great lengths to squeeze it in before giving up.

You mentioned knitting – what other crafts do you do?

Yes, I knit, as well as crochet, and do a small amount of sewing (badly). I also make things out of various materials of all kinds that spark my imagination. All of these give me a lot of happiness, in addition to the benefits I’ve mentioned about crochet, and if I couldn’t do them, I couldn’t be happy.

You also mentioned wrist issues. Can you share more about that?

It keeps my hands from getting stiff, but it can be hard on my wrists, which do act up from time to time.

Yes, people definitely sometimes experience wrist and hand pain from too much crochet. I know that hand exercises, frequent breaks and ergonomic craft tools can all help with that.

Who do you typically crochet for?

It used to be almost always for others – gifts or requests, or items to sell. Recently that’s changed, and I’ve been making more things for myself.  For me at this time, this has definitely been a healing kind of development. It’s as if I’ve given myself “permission” to think up something I’d like, make it, and keep it – something about letting myself have what I want, which is a lesson I’ve needed to learn in life. This growth has just kind of organically happened by crocheting a lot. A LOT! I do still love giving things away and get great satisfaction from someone else loving what I’ve made.

I’m curious, have you ever seen crochet help heal anyone else?

Yes! I was lucky enough to teach a basic crochet class to a group of really inspiring people. I witnessed all of them change from speaking disparagingly of themselves and their “lack” of skill, to seeing for themselves what they could really do, and acknowledging their own courage to be beginners, and experiencing the childlike joy of fulfilling a wish.

One person in particular had suffered a traumatic brain injury such as my own, so I was able to relate to her style of learning. She was so perseverant and determined, and she has really taken off with her new skill. I watched her go from being kind of shaky, apologetic, and completely unsure whether she’d be able to do it, to really beaming and delighting in her accomplishments.

I know from having my own challenges with post-TBI learning, these skills carry over into other parts of your life. The belief that you can still meet mental challenges can absolutely start and keep growing with this craft, so it was especially wonderful to be able to share this with her.

I’m really awed by the positive effects on one's self-esteem derived from creativity -- conceiving of an idea and making it a physical reality really can help us to feel good about ourselves in a very deep way.

So true, and what an amazing experience! Besides crochet, what other things do you do to heal?

I’m somewhat devout in my religious practices, such as prayer, mediation, spiritual reading, going to mass, various devotions, and I receive a lot of grace and healing through all of it.

Occasionally I pull out all the stops and carry out a prolonged “clean” diet, which seriously sets my whole body to rights, and it’s really important for every aspect of my health. (In between the monastic eating phases, I take full advantage of the “magical healing properties” of chocolate and ice cream and the treats my daughter bakes…)

The other biggest healing activities I engage in are relationships – a lot of time and energy nurturing my closest friendships, and some of them are with trees! 

I love that! What else would you like to share before we wrap up?

I’d like to say that there seems to be a perception in our society that arts and crafts are somehow frivolous and peripheral, but I couldn’t disagree more. In my experience they are necessary for health. I am literally compelled to crochet and almost addicted to its healing properties. There is a great sense of security available in knowing that you are capable of creating basic necessities of living, such as garments, blankets, containers and bags for carrying.

I wish that these skills were taught as part of the basic curriculum in schools. People who haven’t learned some handcrafting are often mystified by the skills involved, and I think that’s a shame.  They’re missing out on a truly important part of human development.  I’m happy that now there’s so much information available online, but not everyone has access to that, and even when people do, they don’t necessarily have enough support and encouragement from the larger society to feel okay about pursuing it. So I plan to keep on sharing whatever I know in informal teaching and spreading the joy however I can!


Note: This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Happily Hooked digital magazine. It was republished in their Best of 2014 issue.

Connect with Diane: Find her as snowforest on Ravelry, and swirlinghearts on Instagram. Her blog is Fresh From The Granny Pad.