There’s a reason we feel happy and relaxed when we sew, knit, paint, color in a coloring book or work on a craft project: The action and thought processes that artistic tasks require trigger our brain to release serotonin and dopamine, neuro-transmitters that boost mood, confidence and sense of self-worth explains, Kelly Lambert, Ph.D., a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond in Virginia and author of Well-Grounded. The benefits of quilting, painting, knitting or crafting come from the combination of the hand movements involved in doing the project and seeing the finished product that creates an effort-based reward. The combination makes our brains — and us! — happy.
The case for using our hands meaningfully
“Our grandparents grew their own food and sewed their own clothes and quilts,” Lambert explains. “And those real-world behaviors were effective for maintaining emotional well-being.” Studies show that as modern conveniences have eliminated the need for these hands-on activities, the incidence of depression has been on the rise. But Lambert says crafting or making something with our hands triggers the same happy-brain response as the daily-living chores that bolstered our grandparents’ sense of accomplishment.
“When you use your hands meaningfully — by sewing, knitting or sculpting — you stimulate 60 percent of the neurons in the largest part of your brain, which releases dopamine, a hormone that helps you feel instantly calm and happy,” says Alton Barron, M.D., co-author of The Creativity Cure. Plus, engaging these neurons lowers levels of cortisol to tamp down anxiety.
What’s more, Dr. Barron explains that repetitive motion — like we would do while sewing a quilt, crocheting or making paper flowers — creates a meditative-like state that is study-proven to lower levels of stress-inducing cortisol (a hormone that’s higher in people with depression) in 75% of participants. (Click through to read how these creative craft kits soothe anxiety and improve brain health.)
Case in point: After heart-shattering loss of her daughter left Carol Ann Ferrari-Rogers overwhelmed by grief, anxiety and depression, but when she rediscovered a childhood hobby of sewing quilts, it restored a deep sense of calm and peace to her life. Here, Carol shares her amazing story and her experience with the benefits of quilting.
The worst days of Carol’s life
Carol Ann Ferrari-Rogers had never felt such grief and despair. A few years following her painful divorce, her daughter Michelle was in a car accident and passed away at age 18.
Devastated, Carol became overwhelmed by crippling anxiety, depression and stress. She suffered panic attacks, loss of appetite and felt so weak she feared she could collapse at any moment. All the stress also compromised her immune system, causing her to catch every cold and passing virus. Her doctor offered to write her a prescription for her anxiety, but Carol declined.
At her doctor’s urging, Carol promised she’d think about some ways to manage her anxiety, and on her way home it hit her: I know exactly what I need — my sewing machine!
How Carol found solace in quilting
Carol had started sewing when she was eight years old and fell in love with the craft. Not only was she good at it, but she found sewing to be a calming outlet growing up in a busy family of six.
Her hobby helped her cope during a bad marriage. Carol would retreat to her sewing room where she was able to catch her breath and relax as she created bright, colorful quilts. Once divorced, Carol continued to quilt whenever she could find time while raising her two daughters.
After listening to the doctor’s advice on finding something to deal with the grief of losing her daughter, Carol recalled how happy and at peace she always felt sitting at her sewing machine, and she decided it was where she needed to be.
Carol soon made quilting a regular part of her daily routine. And just as in the past, she found as she focused on her projects, she would stop dwelling on her emotional pain. Her mind and spirit calmed. Soon, her panic attacks eased. Slowly, she regained her appetite — for food and for life.
Bringing the benefits of quilting to others
Intrigued by the results, Carol did some reading about the benefits of crafting and learned that handwork, such as quilting, increases dopamine in the brain, which leads to feelings of joy and optimism.
With each quilt she made, Carol’s mood brightened, her stress eased and she became more hopeful. When she returned for a checkup several months later, her doctor was pleasantly surprised by her progress and agreed that no medication was necessary.
Carol continued quilting, and today the Coral Springs, Florida, 65-year-old has her own quilt company (CozinessQuilts.com) and runs two quilting groups on Facebook. She’s also the president of her local quilt guild, all giving her a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose.
And while she will always miss Michelle greatly, Carol feels stronger than ever, both emotionally and physically, enabling her to once again truly enjoy life with her family.
“While quilting, I am in my meditative, happy place,” Carol says. “I’m able to see my life more clearly — to focus on all that is good.”
For more stories about finding peace in times of grief, keep reading!
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.