I turned in my final graduate school project and expected to feel elated. For the first time in two years, I had the whole weekend free to do all the things I dreamed of doing instead of writing papers.
Instead, I was hit with the uncomfortable heaviness of anxiety.
It was April 2020 when cases of COVID-19 were high in Seattle, and we were on stay-at-home orders. That meant all my usual outlets for excited energy were closed to me. I couldn’t celebrate with a drink at a bar or a session at the gym. Even walking on the sidewalk felt like a terrifying activity.
All I could do was count how many hours were left of Saturday. And then Sunday. And then the months ahead until we have a vaccine and could leave our homes. Suddenly I was without goal to achieve and it was causing me to panic.
But I’d been there before.
After ending a long-term relationship and moving into an apartment by myself in 2011, I suddenly had hours of time alone to be anxious.
My then-therapist suggested a hobby—something I could create or nurture as a way of managing my anxiety. Inspired by a gorgeous cable-knit blanket I spotted while out shopping, I decided to take up knitting.
When I got to a point of feeling fairly calm and certain in my new life, the knitting needles and half-done project got tucked in the back of the closet. They remained there until April 2020, when I found comfort in knitting again.
Calming the Mind
When I don’t have something to do, I often find myself worrying about what may or may not happen or searching the internet for other people’s predictions of what may or may not happen.
That was only intensified with the COVID-19 outbreak—and all the other events of 2020. Even without those annoying screentime reports, I knew I was spending a lot of time looking at my devices in quarantine, and what I was seeing made me anxious.
I found ease in putting my phone down and picking up a project. Nothing I accomplish with my phone can compare to the pride I feel when I tie a ribbon around a blanket I knitted and give it to a friend.
“Our automated thoughts go to fear,” she said. “Knitting brings you back to the present moment and stops your thoughts from running.”
She said it’s the same reason therapists often recommend keeping a hand-written journal. Doing things by hand is slower than digital alternatives, so it slows the brain down.
“The craft project brings you to the present moment, so you’re not future tripping,” she said.
“You’re calm and grounded. It’s less of a distraction and more meditative and mindful.”
Now, when I find myself feeling anxious or panicked, I pull out my yarn and needles. It’s been a rough year. I’ve already finished four blankets!
Working Through Uncertainty
In the months I worked on my post-breakup blanket, I concentrated on counting stitches: Knit one, two. Purl one, two, three, four. I didn’t worry about filling time or learning to live on my own again. I just did it. Crafting can also help after more traumatic life experiences.
"Doing anything creative such as arts, crafts or music can support us through healing through traumatic events,” said Melissa Lapides, certified psychotherapist and family counselor. “It supports our mind and creativity to stay engaged, embodied and connected.”
Thinking back, that first blanket I knitted was full of problems. I purled where I should have knitted. I had a skein of yarn in there that was a slightly different shade of blue. On more than one occasion, I had to pull big sections out to fix mistakes. But I kept going, working through problems and figuring it out. At the same time, I figured out my life.
I still have to focus when I’m knitting and that keeps me from finding new things to worry about. Philipps said this is key to meditative crafting as a release for anxiety.
“You might get to a place where you don’t have to think about it so much anymore, so your mind can race,” she said.
That’s when it’s time to switch things up, so you have to focus again. For example, try a more elaborate knitting pattern. You could also cycle through a few hands-on activities, like painting, gardening, or perfecting your pie crust.
“Don’t limit yourself to thinking I’m not an artist or I’m a minimalist and don’t want things around,” she said. “You can do this with things you’re going to use.”
I don’t need a dozen blankets around, so I’ll give them to friends and family, so they can be cozy this winter. For extra mindfulness, I like to prop a photo of the recipient up near my workspace, so I can think good thoughts for them and reflect on our times together. Being grateful for my loved ones also helps me feel less anxious.
I no longer meet the criteria for clinical diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, but I still find calm in knitting. It’s one of a few tools I can reach for in uncertain times. I also keep a container garden on the deck, go for walks, and take regular yoga classes.
In 2020, we’ve seen a 300% increase in prevalence of anxiety disorder. Crafting alone isn’t treatment for mental health conditions—Philipps highly recommends having a support system, seeing a therapist, or taking medication, if needed—but crafting might help you feel better in the moment, as it does me.