Help with stress and anxiety for creative people (aka everyone)

Is craft therapeutic?

There’s a lot of chat and (can I be honest?), I think, rather superficial stuff written about how doing craft is relaxing, therapeutic, blah blah. Of course, it’s true that doing a repetitive physical task, and losing yourself in the creative process can often be a real boost to your mental health, but I feel it’s nowhere near as simple as that, if the comments on my posts about creativity and mental health are anything to go by.

My own experience is that sometimes undertaking craft projects when you are feeling low or anxious can end up making you feel worse. I remember, a few years back, just at time when my mental health was taking a downward turn, I went on a ‘make a textile piece that expresses your inner self’ type course, and came away feeling beyond dreadful, because I wasn’t able to concentrate, focus, or come up with any ideas.

Creativity and meditation

Being creative requires playfulness, decisiveness, self-confidence, concentration, inspiration, enthusiasm, head-space – all of which can be in short supply when you are depressed, anxious, or feeling low. Sometimes you need to work on strengthening your inner resources and building resilience in other ways. This is something I have been working on recently, prompted partly by the book I want to tell you about today – Meditation for Daily Stress: 10 Practices for Immediate Well-being by Michel Pascal (Abrams & Chronicle – thanks to them for a free review copy):

A review of the book Meditation for Daily Stress by Michel Pascal. Click through to read the review and some thoughts about how meditation can support a creative life.

If you’ve never done meditation, or you have tried to get going with it and found it hard to stick with because of time constraints, I think this book is a great place to start. Or, if you already have a regular meditation practice, there are some really useful tools here that you could add to your kit – this isn’t a standard meditation guide.

Using visualisations

Pascal’s meditations use simple visualisations, combined with a very uncomplicated approach to awareness of breathing. He has created a practice that can be used in short bursts throughout the day – making it practical to do even on the train or bus, at your desk or at times during the day when you can just take a moment.

Pascal’s method is designed to be used in the moment that the stress starts, before it takes hold and causes upset. He also teaches ways of meditating in busy and noisy situations – something that’s been invaluable to me as I struggle with crowds – and makes this a fantastic resource when you need a bit of immediate emotional First Aid.

Meditate for emergency stress management

Buttermere in the Lake District, a visual trigger for meditation practice. Click through to read more about my personal exploration of how meditation can support creative practice, and a review of Michel Pascal's book Meditation for Daily Stress.

I find the visualisations very effective (especially the suggestion that you use real images – that you can have on your phone/PC/tablet – to help you get started – here’s the picture of Buttermere and Great Gable that I use). I have found this particular visualisation for the practice ‘meditate like a mountain’ absolutely invaluable in helping with upsetting feelings that have threatened to become overwhelming over the last few days. I was setting a timer to take a few minutes every couple of hours or so, almost like pain relief. After spending some quiet moments I found I was able to refocus on my work in the Studio.

Getting started with meditation

Pascal’s style is approachable and charming, and he writes with wisdom drawn from his experience of living and learning at the Kopan Monastery in Nepal, from his experiences teaching meditation in LA, from neuroscience and from the Christian tradition too (which I appreciate very much because it is so familiar to me, having grown up in the same tradition). For a small book, there’s so much good stuff here – and if meditation is something that you feel might help you with your creative journey, I think this might be an excellent place to start

There’s lots more to say about meditation, creativity and stitching – I’d like to share more about the science behind meditation/mindfulness/contemplative practices, but that’s so fascinating, I don’t want to rush it, so I will leave it for now. Suffice to say, there are plenty of scientific studies which provide evidence and some insight into why regular meditation practice can support your creativity. But more another time!

Do you practice meditation, mindfulness or contemplative prayer? I’d love to hear about your thoughts on how it supports your creative activities.

When you can’t start stitching: fear of mistakes

Here’s another post in my series on sewing, stitching, creativity and inspiration, where I’m looking at the way that sewing and stitching of all kinds can affect mental health, mood and well-being – both positively and negatively. This is about my explorations and experience, rather than any expertise I have (I don’t!), so I’d LOVE to read your feedback, comments and thoughts in response to these posts.

It was fantastic to read your replies to my first post about the power of setting limits in your stitching as a way of getting started when you are too overwhelmed by ideas. This time round I am going explore how fear of making mistakes can impair creativity, and share some ideas and possibilities for reducing the power this fear can have over us.

A header image with the words unlocking your creativity. Used as the title image for series on creativity, stitching, sewing and inspiration

Why do people stress about sewing?

Helen, commenting on my previous post about creativity, mentioned that it is strange that people get so stressed about sewing and stitching when it supposed to be a fun and relaxing hobby. It *is* weird that that happens to some of us, I agree, but the reasons aren’t difficult to figure out.

Getting stuff right makes us feel great.

Those wonderful smiles from our approving parents…. praise from our school teacher…. For some of us this can become just a little bit addictive and doing well, doing good work, getting perfect marks, can become a lifelong dedication.

‘The way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes’

Worse than the addictive feeling of being right, or being the best, we also associate making mistakes with personal failure. In her excellent TED Talk ‘On Being Wrong’, Kathryn Schulz shows a picture of a quiz paper covered in mistakes and sums up our reactions:

So there you are in grade school, and you know exactly what to think about the kid who got this paper. It’s the dumb kid, the troublemaker, the one who never does his homework. So by the time you are nine years old, you’ve already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits — and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes.

This is brought home to me every time I teach an Absolute Beginners sewing class. The fearful faces! The shaky hands! The fear of things going wrong! We start the class with some deep breaths and a reminder that it’s ok to make mistakes because they are part of the learning process. So, that’s my first tip…

There are good things about mistakes….

 

…Focus on the learning

When you’re learning something new, it’s not a mistake, it’s practice. Even if it goes very badly wrong, you will have learned something. Here’s an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain (aren’t they all?!):

Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.

You can’t get good at something without bad experiences along the way. But you can minimise the likelihood of mistakes and their effects – a bit like having dual-controls in the car when you are learning to drive. Here are some possibilities:

Start small… I love the idea of taking small steps to success. Want to learn how to Free Motion Quilt? Don’t start with a complicated feather pattern on a full-sized quilt. Like to learn dressmaking? Maybe don’t go for the tailored trousers and wool fabric that frays like a demon.

Make small steps to success!

Start small, start achievable, do some practice on cheap fabric, watch some videos, go to a class or do one online, get some advice from an online group. Whatever works for you.

And if you’re the sort of person (like me on a good day!) who hates this kind of advice and wants to crack straight on with the tailored trousers, good on you – go for it! But you are going to have to adopt a fairly philosophical approach to bodges, mess-ups and downright disasters.

Picture showing how I messed up the stitching of a bag to illustrate point about how mistakes can be bodged
My attempt at a cross body bag with an inset zip. My method made stitching the lining into the bag really tricky, so I had to bodge it with some dodgy hand-stitching that I worry about every time I use the bag!

…Focus on the making

We stitch and sew because we enjoy the lovely finishes, but also (more importantly?) we enjoy the process of creating. Enjoying the colours and prints of beautiful fabrics, appreciating the textures of different yarns, relaxing into the rhythm of stitching, thinking about the friends we are making for, daydreaming about our next project, as we work. Enjoy the journey. Don’t fret too much if you take a wrong turning. It might be a dead end…it might be a lovely detour…it might be a wonderful shortcut!

If remembering to stay in the present and just enjoy the making is hard, be kind to yourself and make good decisions about which project to pick up if you are already feeling stressed. Personally I always turn to crochet or chunky hand-stitching when it’s important to just lose myself in the rhythm. Working with colours and patterns that we love can be so soothing.

Playful pink crochet flower in the making
Playful crochet flower in the making

I confess to struggling with this. Having been brought up by folks thoroughly schooled in the Protestant Work Ethic who believed that you always need to do the bad stuff before you get to the good (homework before TV, finish the veggies before you get ice cream), my default is always, ugh, I must finish this really tricky bag constructions before I can make a crochet flower. I am learning to be nicer to myself – and if you have had a similar upbringing, well, this column might change your life.

…Work with the mistakes

This isn’t always going to work but sometimes that mistake can be the bit of grit that makes the pearl in oyster. One of the things about handmade is that your sewing projects can express your individuality and authenticity – and sometimes the mistakes give you a freedom to do that as you work out a solution to salvage a situation.

Small log cabin patchwork pincushion made with Liberty lawn and a crochet edging
When I stitched this pincushion a few years back, I mucked up stitching the edge, so added the crochet lace to hide it – I loved how it turned out.

In Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch uses a French word – bricolage – to express this resourcefulness. Bricolage means making do with the materials you have to hand. He describes a performance situations where everything has gone wrong:

You are forced to do a little bricolage, improvising some new and crazy contraption…. The redirection of attention involved in incorporating the accident into the flow of our work frees us to see the interruption freshly, and find the alchemical gold in it.

To go deeper with this approach – it’s good to contemplate the fact that the hiccuppy, bumpy nature of creativity is a reflection of our lives.  We think one thing is going to happen, we plan for something, all the arrangements are in place, then something else happens instead, and you have to run with it, adapting and doing a bit of bricolage as you go.

So sewing and stitching can be a philosophical life lesson.. and more than that, they can…

…Retrain your brain

So this idea is a bit out there, and is really born out of my experience of living with an annoying anxiety disorder and keeping a reflective cognitive diary. I’m sharing my thoughts in case they ring true for readers out there who’ve had similar experiences…

Making stitchy mistakes gives you the perfect opportunity to work on retraining your brain. How you react to tricky sewing situations is completely within your control. Neuroscience tells us that the brain can learn new ways of thinking more positively about all of life’s little annoyances (more about this in a book review over the next couple of days), and here’s a chance to have a go. At the end of a sewing session that hasn’t gone as well as you would have hoped, take a leaf out of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy handbook and record your thoughts and feelings, (make notes, it makes a difference – there are loads of apps you can use for this – I use this free app), taking time to reflect on them and get them back into proportion and perspective. Your sewing went wrong, but it’s not a big deal and you’re still a good person. The brilliant thing about this is that if, like me, you live with anxiety, it’s definitely a transferable skill. Learn to accept mistakes made as part of the journey of stitching, and in a small way, the tweaking of those neural pathways means that we are learning to accept mistakes as part of the journey of life.

OK. Phew. That was a lot and has taken me a week, on and off, to write. I’d love to hear what you think!

The perils of perfection

Back at the beginning of the year, as part of my Creativity and Well-being Reading Project, I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a fun read, and although I rolled my eyes a bit at the quirky cuteness and the ‘aren’t I great’ tone of some of it, there was some really good food for thought. For all you tl:dr people, the message which resonated hugely with me, and that I’ve come back to again and again since finishing the book, is that doing art/creativity is too important to let fear of meeting an impossible standard get in your way.

done-is-better-than-good

Scary thought or what? Is done really better than good? Personally, driven by my unhealthy ingrained habit of perfectionism (aka ‘I must not fail’), I flinch at the thought… but take a minute, think about it. Here’s a bit more from Elizabeth Gilbert:

The great American novelist Robert Stone once joked that he possessed the two worst qualities imaginable in a writer: He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, those are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life, you do not want to cultivate either one of those traits, trust me. What you want is to cultivate quite the opposite: You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.

It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death.

We don’t have time for perfect.

Ever give up on a project and consign it to the UFO pile because you were afraid of the next thing that needs to be done or because you can’t make a decision about the next step (which fabric…what colour… what next…)?  I’ve done this so so many times. I have boxes full of the ‘what next’ projects, if you need the evidence.

When I’ve worked on magazine projects I’ve sometimes been paralysed by indecision – afraid I would make a misstep and ‘ruin’ a whole project. The good thing, of course, when you’re writing for a magazine, you have to do something! Reflecting on my completed magazine projects and those awful anxious times, as doing CBT demands of me, I realise that, you know what, they turned out pretty much ok – some of them I really love, and I’m really proud of all of them.

So yes. Done is good.

I can definitely be a deeply-disciplined half-ass. Recently, I’ve adopted that as my aim every morning that I go into the studio… it makes me smile and that weight of ‘it’s got to be good’ lifts from my shoulders.

Here are some more thoughts that whizz round my mind for future reflection…

What if perfectionism is just something to hide behind?

  • What if fear of not being good enough stops me even getting started?
  • Should the process of creating become more important to me than the finished creative work?
  • Does fear of failure prevent risk-taking?
  • Is an obsession with good or perfect an obstacle to learning new skills?

Feel free to join our the Very Berry Goodreads.com group for Creativity and Wellbeing – for reading ideas, reviews and a bit of discussion about stuff like this!