The therapeutic value of do-it-yourself activities

Ann Collier

By Ann Collier, assistant professor of psychological sciences

After having three children in little more than a year, I turned to my textile hobby for stress relief.  It worked– when I needed a break and made fiber arts, I was rejuvenated with my family.

For centuries, people have been making textile arts. Like me, they probably experienced improved mood after “making” things.  Whether it was knitting, quilting, weaving, sewing or making rugs.

As a psychologist, I began questioning “why.” What was the therapeutic value of making art?  What I found was surprising, yet validating.

We recently finished a laboratory study with women textile enthusiasts.  We took a series of saliva samples before, during and after the experiment, which included having the participants reminisce about an anger-provoking situation.  We then had them start a textile project. The women who made art after remembering the upsetting experience had better outcomes, that is, they returned to a happier, less angry place more quickly. What surprised me was that their inflammatory immune response also showed improvement, especially compared to the control group. The difficult emotional memory had less of a biological impact on their bodies because they made handcrafts.

Our theory is that activities that are stimulating, arousing and engaging, so much so that they block worry or rumination, are the best types of activities to fix a bad mood and deflect the potential health impact of that mood.

It’s not just textile arts. My newer research shows that for men and women, crafting, do-it-yourself activities, home arts (like baking and gardening) and even hunting all work.  As long as the activity is so engaging that you can’t think about your problems and it makes you feel happy.

We frequently abandon what “works” for us when faced with too must stress.  My research validates the need to keep doing it!

Editor’s note: The above blog first appeared on Academic Minute on Sept. 24.